Sunday, May 5, 2013

Netrebko, Muti Speaks, Trovatore

It's fun to see the necrophiliacs (opera lovers) on various opera lists go on about either how bad Anna Netrebko's aria from Verdi's Macbeth is ("Vieni t'afretta"), or how wonderful it is because she isn't yet a corpse like the great ladies who supposedly made  better recordings of the aria. Being a corpse for many opera obsessives has become a critical imperative, a yard stick for excellence in singing. The old timers (the widder is of an age, don't worry) talk about Maria, Renata and Zinka in exactly the same terms they would have FIFTY YEARS AGO in standing room, and the "younger" idiots parrot these people because, well, if the best you can do is the Ghoul (Maria Guleghina), Goo-Goo (aka Angela Gheorghiu) or The Gum Drop (Debbie Voigt) you have to talk about those ladies of the past, using the same Judy Garland imagery (she's a corpse too). 

But those who condemn the necrophiliacs don't do so seriously, expressing the implied questions that are the most important about this view of opera: "why are there no really new works being given in sufficient numbers, often enough, for them to excite a living audience?"

La Boheme when new was called a "tuneless sewer" but became one of the most popular operas in the rep. Why is there among the queens and "operaphiles" such an automatic hatred of the new, regardless of the style of the composer? Do they love the art or is this a recherché form of masturbation? Are the cretins all over the "Opera Net" just jaded and dumb perpetual adolescents who can get off only on familiar porn? Finally, though, there is the question of WHY there are no longer more than a deformed hand's worth of really impressive singers who, starting with impressive gifts, have reached artistic maturity, their techniques and voices still intact?

Of course, there are opera managements to consider: I dealt with that at the preposterous Met, run by a bunch of morons. But they aren't the only ones. And how about the collusion of the (shrinking and unimpressive) "writing class"? There are too few outlets, and they are ALL filled either with whores making deals with press agents, or with fools.

Netrebko is simply typical of today. She was a beautiful young woman (for an opera singer) when she started and is still “handsome”; she has a big voice of outstanding quality and an easy top. She has presence and knows how to sell herself. She has worked sporadically at refining her singing, but not with any great success. She may or may not be stupid, but she is superficial and functions at a far remove stylistically from the roles the idiots think she does so well. It might be a different story in Russian repertory, but only time will tell if she makes a commitment to those roles, and really, as wonderful as many are, they aren’t as showy or as lucrative in the West as the Italian and French roles she has done in. There isn’t anything authentic about her (well, unless it's greed).

Her performance of the aria starts very badly with the entire first phrase flat. The huge run (marked grandioso) is poorly controlled, not in time and broken for a breath, though Verdi marks it to be sung in one breath. She has trouble with trills, used by the composer strategically to dramatize the aggressive but unstable nature of the character. She can't manage the staccato markings especially in the florid sections, so she can't make the necessary contrast with the legato asked for, sometimes immediately after. Her flimsy gargling of the cabaletta (or fast section) has a quality of the overly ambitious student recital about it. Whether she is forcing the middle of her voice to make a darker sound may be a matter of opinion (or You Tube compression). It's a poor showing, but of course she's a star and like Judy can do no wrong. That's what opera has become and is as good a reason for all those intellectuals to despise the form as any. (Netrebko vacuums Verdi)

One of the problems of opera today has been the death of “schools” of singing, where performers internalize the requirements of what they are singing. Opera singing now is bland, superficial or wrong in too many cases. I will sound like a broken record, but with the fools who cast, an audience that itself is increasingly alienated from its traditions (and the small audience that exists in America is mostly remarkable for its ignorance), conductors who rush from job to job, and the fact that ALL these operas are a century and more old, means that an often halfhearted effort to more or less get it right is the best one can do. 

Returning to Macbeth though, what does the music require? What would Verdi have wanted?

(DIGRESSION: By the time Verdi wrote the first version of Macbeth, in 1847, he was very famous and by composer standards very rich. He seriously considered retiring after this opera had its premiere and becoming a gentleman farmer with his mistress, Giuseppina Strepponi. When he was rehearsing Macbeth in Florence, Strepponi, disguising herself, slipped into the city to join him in secret. She’d been living in self imposed exile in Paris, where their affair had begun.

(pic: Strepponi)

DIGRESSION 2: She had had a brief career as a superstar in Italy; she had been the first Abigaille in Verdi’s first hit, Nabucco, at La Scala; and indeed, had contributed to the sensation. In fact she seems to have made a career like Netrebko’s, based on good looks, though in Strepponi’s case, she was also musical, had acting ability and a deep seriousness. In any case, her celebrity helped young Verdi enormously, and for herself, brought her well paying gigs, and wealthy “patrons” by whom she had too many illegitimate children. Her voice was a wreck by the time she was in her early thirties (she retired in 1846, after being booed off the stage more than once) but she had saved her money, and with her brood of sin, she settled in Paris, where she became a successful business woman.

They met again in The City of Light. By then, Verdi was a successful young widower who had also lost two children, so he had, as they say, lived, and they fell in love. No one cared in Paris, but in Italy at the time, where every city had tabloids like The National Enquirer and New York Post, she was still a legend of “immorality”. They made some kind of pledge to one another – which they kept for the rest of their lives, even though the composer strayed, but he made it clear he would not marry her. Under Italian law that would have made him financially responsible for her sons and that he would not do. She agreed.

As he finished Macbeth, she provided a shrewd eye and ear, as well as a tough, theater wise mind, and he adored living with her in secret in Florence. He let a telegram boy into their hotel suite. While he wrote a response to the telegram, the boy saw Strepponi, and, after doffing his cap and taking his tip, ran to the nearest tabloid. Verdi’s involvement with Strepponi filled all the papers the next day. Though they were both furious to have been discovered, Verdi told all his friends, including his former father in law, who had virtually raised him, that he loved Strepponi, knew her past, would live with her, had no intention of marrying her and if they didn’t like that or her, they could forget they knew him. They all knuckled under.

Back to the issue of Netrebko and her timid and clumsy singing of the aria, of course, someone on one of the lists wrote in about Verdi’s famous casting letter. When the opera was to be given in Naples, he was disturbed by the casting of a star soprano named Tadolini. He wrote, “Tadolini is a fine figure of a woman, and I would like Lady Macbeth to look ugly and malignant. Tadolini sings to perfection and I would rather that Lady didn’t sing at all. Tadolini has a marvelous voice, and I would rather that Lady’s voice were rough, hollow, stifled. Point out that the chief pieces of the opera are two: the duet between Lady and her husband, and the sleepwalking scene; and these pieces must not be sung at all: they must be acted and declaimed in a voice that is hollow and veiled: without this the whole effect is lost.”

(pic: Callas as Lady Macbeth)

Scholars have on the whole thought Verdi was exaggerating greatly, even to excess. For one thing in this first version of the opera there are arias and cabalettas for Lady Macbeth that are of the utmost difficulty and require great virtuosity. Though it’s very possible that Verdi simply didn’t like Tadolini and was trying very diplomatically to get her fired, the usual interpretation of the letter is that Verdi was insistent that Macbeth was – and this was an old but new term in 19th century Italy – a music drama. That its effect was not in the success of individual arias or even in rousing patriotic choruses. Verdi insisted that this was not important, not the soul of the opera. That was in the fusing of music with dramatic responsibility, a higher degree of dedication to what Verdi saw as the "truth" in the work of the world’s greatest dramatic poet.

Mentioning this letter is, at least, a tiny effort to get to the issue of “authenticity”. And as in all quarrels about “authenticity”, the question becomes what exactly did Verdi really mean? Was it a diplomatic way to get rid of a famous soprano? Or did he want a vocal color that wasn't merely pretty, but a singer of supreme virtuosity none the less – though the greatest stretch and by the composer’s design the climax of that first Macbeth is The Sleepwalking Scene, an amazing accomplishment, which does benefit from a haunting, beautiful tone. (The Paris Macbeth of 1865 is full of remarkable harmonic and orchestral invention but The Sleepwalking Scene is no longer the culmination of the opera, and what seems remarkable in 1846 no longer seems so striking amid the greater sophistication and changed emphases of Paris. It is the Paris version, though frequently with cuts, that is performed today.) 

It's rare to use the term "authenticity" about Giuseppe Verdi (the historically informed movement had its roots in music of the Baroque and earlier, where scholars often had to reconstruct and interpret the tuning and notation of what they wanted to perform. Though the most familiar music they worked on, The Four Seasons, Handel's Water Music, The Brandenburgs is terrifically tuneful, those composers were technical and intellectual wonders as much or more than tunesmiths.) Alma Mahler simply quoted received opinion and her dead husband when she described Verdi as "talented but totally untrained, a peasant, ignorant."

Actually, Verdi was not a peasant, his people were small business owners and ran small farms, they didn't actually work the land. He was beyond question the best trained of the Italian composers of his generation and of earlier and later generations too. Being rejected at the Milan Conservatory because of his age and only respectable piano playing was the best thing that could have happened to him. His private teacher forced him to practice counterpoint day and night, to work hard in the demanding "old" forms, such as fugue, and throughout his composing life Verdi had the scores of those great intellectuals Frescobaldi, Palestrina and Bach at his bedside.

He was also intellectually brilliant, a voracious reader, whose circle even to a large degree in provincial Busetto, and certainly later in Milan, contained the most brilliant Italian minds of the period. Andrea Maffei, whose idea it was to turn Macbeth into an opera and who drew up the scenario and wrote many of the verses was a man of tremendous culture and intellect, as well as one of the composer's closest friends. 

One is less likely to see Verdi's work dismissed today, than was true fifty years ago. Sensible people are more convinced that he was a great composer, though of that most equivocal form, opera, and don't feel the need to make excuses for him. However, since his career ended one hundred twenty five years ago and his operas, now usually badly cast, form a huge part of the standard repertory, trying to get them right seems like a good idea. However, of course, familiarity brings sloppiness in execution. They are taken for granted.

The vocal expertise he expected and wrote for has long vanished. The type of voices he demanded (and he was very practical), are largely gone (there isn't a true Verdi baritone in the world today -- at least known -- not only a case of voices too light and bright and small, but of temperaments too timid for magnificent parts such as Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, Rodrigo in Don Carlos, Iago, Falstaff, Macbeth and a number of others.)

Things have gotten so bad that a former tenor named Placido Domingo has taken over many of these roles. Just as he defined down what it meant to be a Verdi tenor with his small voiced, cautious, range challenged but inescapable mediocrity in roles such as Otello, Don Alvaro, Don Carlos and other roles, he is defining down what the Verdi baritone roles need. He has been a great star. But in opera today that's as meaningless as it is in movies – or are we to accept Tom Cruise, The Rock, Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Ted, The Bear, as iconic? The idiots buy it and praise it. If Domingo is great, then less good, which amounts to much worse, is acceptable. If Nebrebko is “fabulous” than an anonymous chamber maid is good enough when she's not around.

Of course, that is what smart people often hold against opera -- the singer. He or she is inescapable, even in 20th century works. Wozzeck, his Marie; Lulu, her Dr. Schön, her poor Countess, Alwa all need charisma and vocal acumen, not always of such a different sort fundamentally, even if the music sounds different. Intellectuals, rightly sometimes, have known that many famous singers just had a certain rare kind of vocal set-up physically and either the instinct to use it effectively, or the luck to get it well trained, and were shrewd self promoters rather than artists of interpretive profundity and seriousness.

For those with an interest in authenticity as regards Verdi one might start with that first great sensation, Nabucco.  Nowadays, the leading lady, Abigaille, is usually sung by pitch challenged screamers such as The Ghoul, above. It is considered a heavy part, for, until a very late uninspired aria of repentance, she is a black hearted villain. But Strepponi’s biggest sensation at La Scala before Abigaille was as Adina in The Elixir of Love – L’elisir d’amore, Donizetti’s delightful comedy, usually sung by high, light sopranos. When Riccardo Muti cast a very famous Adina, Renata Scotto, as Abigaille in his recording of Nabucco, they were both roundly criticized. But from all reports it’s unlikely that Strepponi had a bigger, darker or more secure voice than Scotto.

On Opera Hell these last two weeks was a posting decrying "authenticity" in I guess opera because that poster doesn't know anything about music (a common problem among opera lovers). His (?) posts were incoherent, stupid and philistine. Attempts to perform "what the composer" wanted go back a way, except puzzlingly. This is a claim the Little Big Horn of conductors Arturo Toscanini made, which did not stop him from radically recomposing Tchaikovsky's Manfred, as can be heard on the broadcast of 1953. Whatever is "wrong" with Manfred as written, what Little Big Arturo does is disgraceful and does Pyotr ilyich no favors. But I don't believe "Tosca" (what his 6000 girlfriends called him) thought he was doing the wrong thing. Any more than when he made the supremely unmusical traditional cuts in La Traviata

Most conductors, whatever they or their press agents or record companies claimed, "touched" up orchestration, made cuts, re-harmonized and added a plethora of their own "expressive" devices regardless of the score. Even a great scholar conductor like Victor De Sabata re-orchestrated everything he touched, including Tristan und Isolde as can be heard very clearly despite the bad sound from his "complete" performance of 1951 (shockingly cut). It's a great performance anyway, and many of the changes are obviously meant to highlight harmonic details or heighten a mood by simplifying or re-enforcing what Wagner wrote. I'm sure had anyone dared tell Victor that he was distorting Saint Richard he would, in rage, have lifted his arms and flapped them in that person's face (he was known not to bathe).

Some years ago I was lucky enough to hear Riccardo Muti conduct Il Trovatore at La Scala. Now, most people think of The Troubadour  in terms of the fatal movie starring The Marx brothers. It is a by word for silliness in opera; and those musically inclined are inclined to call it “rum-ti-um” or "barrel organ" music. One could hardly blame nasty Alma Mahler if she thought the usual Trovatore was banal and rough. On a preposterous recent discussion of recordings of this opera on Opera Hell, only I pointed out that the “definitive” recording this one or that one was shrieking about was heavily cut, full of wrong notes, botched rhythms, coarse simplifications, re-orchestrations, stretches not written by Verdi but “traditional”. Why would these things matter, Trovatore (opera?) is not art but grotesquerie. It isn’t about anything but whether the tenor sings at least one and better two unwritten high Cs (no one cares if he trills and phrases with the breadth and passion the composer asks for in the gorgeous, elegiac aria right before the one with the unwritten high Cs – no one cares that in the performances these freaks were screaming about that high C “Pira” sequence was cut in half and badly mangled in execution. It depends for its profile on the tenor’s being able to sing rapid sixteenth notes but few can; as are all the ensembles in the opera, this one is carefully structured for maximum musical/theatrical effect. But who cares about that?) 

And none of these horrors, these murderers of art cared about something that obsessed Verdi: the words. Of course nothing was more important than the prima donna. Zinka Milanov was greatest despite her words being mere gobbledegook, her phrasing provincial, her manner cruder. No! Greater was Leontyne Price, sincere but with awkward very American pronunciation. Though unlike Milanov, Price sounds like she understands what she is singing, she does mangle words, and in her later records the growling at the bottom and the ugly contrivance of getting into and out of this faux chest register breaks the line – though she understands that too. No, never!!! Best was Montserrat Caballe, though she drops consonants and changes vowels and counts less well than even Milanov, so Verdi’s beautifully sculpted intensely felt phrases count for very little. But high notes!! Soft ones! Loud ones! That’s the ticket!!!

At the Muti Trovatore he was working with a good, not great cast, though he had rehearsed them himself, playing the piano and working now on words, then on dynamics, on rhythm, working constantly for expression based – yes -- on authenticity as well as accuracy. He had studied the manuscript and other early scores, looked at the notes singers Verdi knew made on their scores after working with him, above all he had sought to feel the music and the drama as the composer, who loved these characters and felt their destinies keenly did. Muti had MEMORIZED the play the opera was based on!!!

That is El Trovador by Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez from 1836. Gutiérrez was influenced by Victor Hugo and adopted the same style -- very remote from the narrative style of our time. On the one hand there is a foreground -- impossible love, conflict, duels, oaths and vengeance -- dispatched with vigor and intensity. Scene to Scene, the opera  Il Trovatore (more compact than the play) makes perfect sense. These are scenes of intense feeling. But there is an elaborate back story. This is not dealt with quickly but luxuriously. What is happening in the "now" of the play is motivated in large part by age old feuds, betrayals, a longing for vengeance passed down from generation to generation. Madness runs in these families as much as blood lust does, and a fierce pride forestalls a quiet talk of Sunday afternoon 'round the newly polished dining room table where conciliation is celebrated by a tearful prayer. Satisfaction is not achieved by the Kiss of Piece but by plunging a knife into someone's throat. This of course is all explained in pages long monologues where one character or another explains and explores his or her lineage, the family glory gained and lost by the gory malfeasance of enemy intrigue, itself motivated by a history of broken promises, wanton cruelty, insanity and ambition. The plays move back and forth between effective stage action, and long, long, long stories of the ill deeds of long ago.

Verdi, working first with Salvatore Cammarano, who died, and then a very cooperative young man named Leone Bardare, did a very good job of compressing the play and using those long narratives to musical effect. The scene in act two where Azucena tells Manrico not quite the entire truth of her mother's death and her own attempt to avenge it, is a thrilling display of romantic wildness, obsession and weirdness. Leonora's story of how she came to know Manrico is managed in an interestingly shaped aria. Above all through the music one comes to believe in these characters, to understand their psychologies, and as Verdi sought, not only to be moved by their destinies but to confront the malignancy that lurks everywhere in the world. But this can happen only if the work is presented absolutely complete, in the form the composer envisaged, its numbers shaped, arched, inflected with an abundance of controlled emotion. Opera, music, asks us (from one point of view at least) to make this leap into a sea of knowing beyond what small concerns we will take to bed, to the bank, to the the grave. Verdi actually achieves this as is evident from a carefully and accurately edited score but it takes a great musician working with people willing to understand as he does to make this happen in time.

I was astounded when I heard Verdi's Trovatore for the first time in reality at Scala. I had heard Price and Caballe and Corelli and all the others the record collectors worshiped variously and together. I had heard the mangled records. I'd read the score and sensed something but yet here it was, not just entertaining for the tunes, or for the vocal feats achieved by leaving so much out but profound.

I talked with Muti. I mentioned that I found the accompaniments to be of the utmost delicacy and beauty. The rhythms were wonderfully inflected as only a great pianist might inflect Chopin. “But of course,” he said, “Verdi loved and studied Chopin and he is all through this music”.

But doing that with an orchestra live is no mean feat. I was struck for example by the gossamer accompaniment to “d’amore sul ali”; the beautiful preparation for the key change, the perfectly judged corona over the 8th note b flat tied to the 16th b natural; the perfect silence (dotted 16th rest) and then the launch into the major at “com’aura di speranza”, and then the marvelously sprung figures at “io desta alle memorie”. In particular I was amazed at his use of gradations of piano and pianissimo and the slight hesitations on the off beats for the accompaniment which can sound like dreary um-pah-pah, um-pah-pah.

 “But don’t you understand?” Muti asked, “The entire opera is a memory. There are all these stories, starting with Ferrando then with The Gypsy, Azucena, then there is Manrico, Il Trovatore, in Mal Regendo, stories about death and ghost voices and loss, and then here this Leonora is saying, "‘let the memories, even the dreams of our love be comfort.'"

“When you say Chopin,” he continued, “what is most memorable there? The Nocturnes. Trovatore is a night picture, where the shadows fall everywhere and the melancholy, the smell, the sense of death cannot be escaped. What are this troubadour’s first words? "‘I am deserted on the earth’". "That’s what he sings, "‘col rio destino in Guerra, at war with evil destiny’".

"Look, he is singing at night to his girlfriend and he says, “well I am cursed, outcast and am going to die, so you might as well give me hope, not ‘I am sexy and so are you, let’s make a baby!’”

“This nocturne is in all the music, the limpidity, the expression, the singing. Not only the soloists, I mean the orchestra they must sing. You think about Rigoletto and Traviata; there are all these big orchestra punctuations. But in Trovatore there is so much silence, and the strings, and the clarinet, they sing. And I work from the new edition out of Chicago. In the usual score there are 5 piano markings for Conte’s entrance, “tace la notte”, but in the original score there are 15 pianos. What does Verdi tell us? It is all silence. The silence of the tomb. For they will all die. And so my critics think it is just and fitting that all these people can go on the stage and scream?"

"They say all this ‘come scritto’ about me. You know when I do Tell, I ask the tenor to die on the stage singing all those high notes. But consider who this Trovatore is. He is a poor serenader among the gypsies. He is not at the anvil. He does not have 15 illegitimate children. He is alone with this crazy old lady. Look at his music, listen to it. Is “Ah, si, ben mio?” a warrior? Would Otello sing that or Radames? This is a poet. And what does he say:  "‘let us be nice and sweet right now because it is very likely I am going to die soon’". "This he sings on his wedding day to his bride! Then he runs off to save this crazy old lady he is not even sure is his mother – and five minutes later he is in prison and going to be killed? This is someone who sings and holds High Cs? Where is the truth in that? Verdi is great because it is always true. And I want to find his truth.”

For me, that is "authenticity". And that's enough.


  1. The article was good when it appeared (I think Opera News, correct?) and it's even better to re-read it today.

  2. Thanks Alan, I was afraid it would be too long or too many of the people who know about this blog and check it out would have read it. But I did think it was interesting to contrast what people thought in 1999 with what has happened since. Thanks for reading.

    The Widder

  3. I really wish more contemporary operas would become popular. Some of them are really good. I got The Minotaur on blu-ray and it really has a lot of potential - great music, challenging (=really fucking hardcore) roles, a great twist on the myth, a very humanized "villain". It makes you question who the true monster is. Granted, the title role was tailor-made for John Tomlinson, but I could definitely see a few others being great in it. But has it been performed outside London?