Essays Literary sources

Cinderella With and Without Magic

Cindarella_illustration_by_Charles_Robinson_1900Cinderella With and Without Magic

Concerning the Little Girl of the Cinders, there is the Rossini opera, the Massenet opera, the Prokofiev ballet, the Disney film, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein television musical. Each of them is based on the rags-to-riches tale that exists in over 500 versions all over the world but which is known best in the form written by Charles Perrault in 1697.

Cinderella was originally a goose girl under the domination of cruel masters, in this case two sisters and an unfeeling father. In the earlier tales, she was helped to the ball either by an animal or the spirit of her dead mother. It was Perrault who introduced the Fairy Godmother and the midnight limit for the girl’s big night out. By a mistranslation, her “pantoufle de vair” (slipper of fur) became her “pantoufle de verre” (slipper of glass) that she drops as she runs from the palace. In other versions, it is a ring that she leaves behind. In one Zuni version, she is a turkey girl and her turkeys lend her their feathers in which to dress, but at midnight they come to reclaim them. Such is the nature of folklore.

The Disney version was laden with the usual anthropomorphic doorknobs and such and a stepmother far more frightening than the one in the French tale. Therefore, this Cinderella was much more vulnerable as she sang, “Cinderella, Cinderella, night and day, it’s Cinderella” and so on.

51jX+MBJRAL._AA160_In the Rossini opera, “La Cenerentola,” there are no supernatural doings at all. A wise and old tutor to the Prince gives Cinderella her dress and transportation. All the while, a comic servant of the Prince, Dandini by name, poses as the Prince and is chased by the two social-climbing sisters and their idiotic but cruel papa throughout most of the work. Also, the fairy godmother becomes the wise old Alidoro and the glass slipper becomes a bracelet.

“La Cenerentola” is a much more human and sentimental work than are most of Rossini’s comic operas. In fact, the subtitle is “Goodness in Triumph,” and that is a clue to the nature of both the title character and the meaning of the play.

As I was interviewing the cast and crew of a recent local production, the conductor wanted to emphasize that “La Cenerentola” is not a children’s opera but a moral tale for adults in which human failings are studied rather than pumpkins that turn into coaches. The stage director agreed that the cartoon approach to this work that shows up in so many productions should be avoided and that one must humanize the characters. Cinderella, he says, should evoke great empathy from the audience. The mezzo in the title role went so far as to say that she sees in this role something of the Virgin Mary, who “also did not seek honor or coronation.” She falls in love with a man she thinks is a butler and winds up a member of the royal family! The singer sees the moral of the tale as “he who truly seeks love in his heart will reap countless treasures beyond imagination.”

You don’t get reactions like that about “The Italian Woman in Algiers” or even about “The Barber of Seville”!

Those who have seen the video with Frederica von Stade in the title role could quite agree with most of those comments. Those who have seen Cecilia Bartoli mug her way through probably could not. To each his own.

But why did Rossini choose to eliminate all the magic from the story? It has been suggested that it was because the work was scheduled to be given in a Rome opera house and that the Vatican censors would not permit any sort of magic that did not come from their concept of the Christian deity. Rossini biographer Francis Toye attributes the de-supernaturalization to Rossini’s own dislike of the fantastic. However, I have a feeling that the truth lies closest to the reason given by Bridget Paolucci on the Metropolitan Opera’s tape “Talking About Opera: La Cenerentola.” According to her, Rossini knew that the Valle Theatre, for which he was composing the work, simply did not have the physical facilities for special effects on their not-quite-state-of-the-art stage!

Regardless, the work has scarcely suffered from its emphasis on human beings and it remains one of opera’s most charming creations.

51x1jmJB+QL._AA160_It is interesting that Massenet’s 1896 operatic version “Cendrillon” does keep the Fairy Godmother, But the score is far less interesting than Rossini’s and the work not nearly as much fun.


Essays Literary sources

The Riddle of the 3 Riddles in “Turandot”

220px-Poster_TurandotThe Riddle of the 3 Riddles in “Turandot”

The plot of Puccini’s last opera “Turandot” hinges on the nameless suitor answering three riddles. Readers familiar with myth and folklore will instantly recognize this as an element common to many tales.

The suitor in “Turandot” is faced with having to answer three abstract riddles, the answers to which are “Hope,” “Blood,” and “Turandot.” (One wonders if each suitor got the same three, considering that they are read out loud and word must have gotten around if they were unchanged through the years!) If he wins, he gets the Princess; if he loses, he loses his head. Since Turandot herself is the cause of many deaths in the past, one should keep her association with Death in mind as we proceed in this essay.

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Careful of whom you ask questions!

In Wagner’s “Siegfried,” Wotan in his guise as The Wanderer, plays (as Anna Russell puts it in her spoof of the Ring Cycle) 20 Questions with Mime. The dwarf wages his head (cf. the wager in “Turandot”) that he can ask his guest three questions and then answer whatever three the guest proposes. Mime’s questions are easily answered by Wotan, and Wotan’s first two questions are easily answered by Mime. The last question, however, “Who will forge the sword?”, puts Mime in great jeopardy. Again, the last answer concerns an instrument of death—and again the contestant’s head is at stake.

Gold, silver, lead?

In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Bassanio is confronted with three caskets: gold, silver, lead. A portrait of his beloved Portia is in one. The audience knows which casket is the right one, because it has seen two other suitors choose the wrong ones. What is at stake here is Bassanio’s love and his need for money, both of which Portia is willing to satisfy—and indeed she has a song sung to Bassanio before he chooses in which most of the end words rhyme with “lead.”

Consider, now. Lead is associated with bullets and coffins, and is found deep in the earth. Again, Death lies in the third riddle.

In the folk tale, Goldilocks enters the house of the Three Bears. From the best bowl of porridge to the best bed, the first and second choices are too extreme while the third is always “just right.” When the anthropomorphic family returns, the little human barely escapes with her life—and a record of breaking and entering, I suppose.

1024px-Page_69_illustration_in_English_Fairy_TalesAnd what about the Three Little Pigs? The third survived the Big Bad Wolf, so perhaps death is not always the reward. Symbolism is not required to be consistent.


ts141207In myth, the shepherd Paris (or in some versions, Alexander) is suddenly faced with three naked goddesses, each of whom bribes him to award her the Golden Apple. Hera offers him the rule of Europe and Asia, Athena offers him the power to lead Troy to victory against the Greeks, Aphrodite offers him the fairest woman in the world. Since the latter is Helen of Sparta and her departure to Troy with Paris leads to the death of countless soldiers and citizens, that third choice seems yet again one of certain death.

One step back again to very early myth. The Moon appears in three phases. When full, it is Selina, Queen of Heaven. When it is in the shape of a bow, it is Artemis, the Huntress Queen of the Earth. When it is the New Moon (that is, no moon at all), it is black Hecate, Queen of the Underworld. And there we are again!

Beware that third wish, according to Dr. Freud

Freud considered this theme and concluded that humans will forever harbor a Death Wish, making choices that lead thereto. I see it from a different point of view. The very essence of three-ness is that three points form a triangle. Consider that nearly every comic opera plot concerns two characters of one sex in love with a third party of the other. In “Marriage of Figaro” there is the Figaro-Susanna-Count triangle; in “Oklahoma!” there is the Curly-Laurey-Judd triangle; in “The Mikado” we have Nanki Poo-Yum Yum-Ko Ko!

If we consider one of the males to be Thesis and the other Antithesis, there can be no Synthesis (i.e., a Happy Ending) unless the undesirable suitor bows out willingly or otherwise. This is the one of the great elements of comedy.

In tragic operas, however, that Synthesis can be brought about only in Death. So Aida and Radames can be united only in the tomb while Amneris curses the priests from above. Violetta and Mimi must both die of consumption because Life with the Beloved has proven impossible. Both Tannhauser and his Elizabeth must die to be united (one supposes) in a better world.

And of course the greatest example of love-in-death is that of Tristan and Isolde, as Wagner tells it. But more about that in some other essay.

Going full cycle, then, back to “Turandot,” her first kiss from a man suddenly brings her over to his way of looking at things and the opera ends happily (if one ignores the death of little Liu, the only really sympathetic character in this tale). And yet, a recent production of this opera (available on a DVD) takes a chance and has Turandot stab herself at the last moment, even as the chorus is singing about how wonderful life will be in Peking. Personally, I think the tenor doesn’t know how lucky he is!

Essays Literary sources

The Three Bohemes


The Three BohemesBoheme

Those familiar Bohemians—(to give their Italian names) Rudolpho, Marcello, Musetta, Mimi, and their friends—probably were once very live people, going precariously from day to day and having only boundless optimism and hearty interrelations to sustain them. Around 1847, Henry Murger published a series of magazine articles, really sketches, concerning the life of the Paris Bohemians. These became a play and later were incorporated in a book titled “Scenes de la Vie de Boheme.”

Illustration from 1921 edition of Murger book

In the same way that “East Enders” finally took a sympathetic look at the citizens of that much maligned section of London and showed them to be interesting human beings, Murger’s stories did the same for Paris’s colony of starving artists, poets, philosophers, musicians, flower girls, and all the rest.

This is, of course, a candy shop for writers of opera libretti; and one Leoncavallo did indeed write a libretto in which Marcello and Musetta are the main characters, with Rudolpho and Mimi as secondary characters. It is said that Leoncavallo offered his version to Puccini, who thought it could not be very good or its author would have set it to his own music. Well, Leoncavallo did just that.

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Leoncavallo, loser in the La Boheme sweepstakes

But Puccini was also interested in the Murger work as the source of a comic-tragic opera and discussed it with his publisher, the wily Giulio Ricordi. There is a story, difficult to confirm, that Ricordi, Puccini and Leoncavallo were having a drink at some café when the latter mentioned his intentions to go ahead with his “La Boheme.” Ricordi said his firm would have no interest in a work on that subject, knowing full well that he had already settled on Puccini’s version. Whatever happened that day, it is a fact that the two composers were on the worst of terms afterwards and that Puccini’s “La Boheme” premiered the year before Leoncavallo’s.

Going by the assumption that my readers are already familiar with the plot of the Puccini work, I think it best to concentrate on Leoncavallo’s treatment.

Musetta throws a party in an 1899 production

To start, a first hearing might prove disappointing. While the score is full of wonderful music in the orchestra (thank you yet again, Wagner), there are few of the vocal lines that one will recall once the curtain goes down—or the CD ends. Leoncavallo was following the path of the verismo school in which the vocal lines follow normal speech patterns and people do not burst into arias or participate in duets in the way they do in (say) the Puccini work. So when Leoncavallo wants a song from Musetta, someone must ask her to sing one. There is also a lot of fun when the men take on a spoof of Rossini’s music and when Marcello sings a snatch from Meyerbeer.

The order of the incidents taken from the Murger chapters is like this. In Act I, we meet all the main characters on Christmas Eve at the Café Momus, where the owner is insisting he be paid. After they order a large meal, they cannot indeed pay anything; but a stranger suddenly appears and offers to pay. Too proud to accept, Schaunard wagers the bill on a game of billiards with the man and easily wins.

Act II is out in the courtyard of the tenement in which the friends live. Abandoned by her rich lover, Musetta is out on the street; but a party they had planned is given anyway, to the great annoyance of the other tenants. Mimi realizes that one cannot live on love alone (a theme of this opera) and goes off with a rich gentleman, leaving her Rudopho to do without.

Act III begins where Puccini’s Act I begins, in the attic. There is a total change in mood.  Musetta is leaving Marcello and Mimi returns, begging to be taken back. Marcello, unlike Puccini’s painter, thinks Mimi has turned Musetta against him, convinces Rudolpho to reject Mimi, and the two women leave in tears.

Act IV is practically the same as in Puccini’s work. A year has passed. Mimi, close to death, is brought back by Musetta. Her last words, and the last in the opera, are “Natale, Natale” (“Christmas, Christmas”), bringing us back neatly and sadly to the opening scene of the work.

            How I wish some company would revive this work onto video to give us all a chance to enjoy it. In the meanwhile, there are one or two recordings on CD that might still be available. And, of course, one can always read the Murger novel and gain a good deal of insight into how different librettists treat the same source

Essays Literary sources

Shakespeare’s Texts as Opera Libretti

sir johnShakespeare’s Texts as Opera Libretti 

One wishes to set a Shakespeare play to music as an opera in English. What are the choices? In fact, what are the chances of success? Of course, compelling music is most critical in such a translation. Equally important is an intelligent treatment of the original text. So again, what are the choices?

Obviously, one must cut. No one would dream of keeping every line of a Shakespeare play and trying to set the whole to music for the simplest of reasons: it takes longer to sing a line than to speak it.

That said, does one keep unaltered what is left? For “Salome,” Richard Strauss took about three-fourths of Oscar Wilde’s text (in German) and set what was left as is. Strauss had the talent to carry it off. Yes, there are moments when things do drag just a little; but for the most part, he managed to set an awful lot of prose—no mean feat—to powerful music.

41SW45ZTYEL._AA160_When Gustav Holst composed “At the Boar’s Head,” he chose the prose scene in which Hal and Falstaff alternate playing King and Prince. (That is, “Henry IV, Part 1,” Act II, scene iv.)  Where he sticks to the original text, the vocal line is not very interesting musically. After all, setting prose to music is quite a challenge and this composer did not quite meet it. However, in the sections of this short work which are not set to prose, such as Hal’s singing Sonnet No. XIX, the score is melodic and attractive.

Ralph Vaughan Williams did the same with his “Sir John in Love.” Passages taken straight from the prose text of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” are mingled with English folk songs that make the score a delight. Why this wonderful piece is not part of the regular repertory is beyond me.

51f7eQa2z7L._AA160_The failure of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” commissioned to celebrate the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center, was (I feel) due to his libretto, which adhered faithfully to an abridged version of the original text. Even Strauss could not sustain enough musical interest in his post-“Elektra” operas because of the libretti; and Barber likewise failed to create any better than a declamatory vocal line for his singers.

download (2)Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has wonderful things happening in the orchestra but little more than that same declamatory vocal line that proves so boring after a short while. Only when he lets his lovers sing together in a short chorale do things perk up a bit. (I once was showing a video scene from this work to a Continuing Education class, and one of them asked me to skip to the next work. I quite agreed with her.)





What inspired me to discuss this topic of taking Shakespeare on in musical terms was the release of two operas based on “The Tempest.” The one with a score by Thomas Ades (on an EMI Classics CD set) has librettist Meredith Oakes wisely making cuts and tightening up what was left by transforming them into shorter lines, some of which rhyme. To pick a random example: “I have been captive/With you twelve years/I must be active/In higher spheres…” and so on.

I find that the orchestra has much that is interesting to say while the singers are given all sorts of vocal pyrotechnics to add variety. What happens is that the words, although sung in English, are barely understandable without the aid of the printed text. Still, after a while, one does hope for a melody of some sort.

61A4GQnx3ML._AA160_Lee Hoiby’s “The Tempest” has a libretto by Mark Shulgasser, in which the parts of the original he retained are word for word. I need hardly say that the declamatory vocalization is much in evidence. (This version is available on Troy CDs.) Every time I think Hoiby is about to approach a melody—as in Ariel’s songs—he disappoints.

For some reason, contemporary composers do not feel that the singers need be given any melodic lines. Shall I be cynical and guess they simply cannot do so, like the artist who paints abstractions because he cannot paint a realistic apple? Or shall I give them the benefit of a doubt and agree that they might feel melody would destroy the drama? Why, in that case, compose opera at all?

I would rather hear Hoiby than Ades, but give me Verdi’s “Otello” for the perfect blend of melodic vocal lines, powerful orchestration that is not for one moment boring, and all the drama even Shakespeare could have desired.

Essays Literary sources

Mythic Themes in Opera: The Unknown Bridegroom

Lohengrin arrives with his swan.


Some while ago, I wrote a series of articles about operas based on myths. Now I want to examine a certain mythic theme that shows up in operas. Having just listened to a recording of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” for the purposes of a review, the theme of the “Unknown Wooer” or the “Unknown Husband” came readily to mind.

The oldest version is that of Apuleius in the 5th  century. Here we have a young girl married to a man she must never look upon. When, Cinderella-like, she is taunted by her sisters, she sees him sleeping, learns it is Cupid himself, and loses him for her disobedience. You see, “Love cannot live where there is no trust” (as Edith Hamilton translates it).

Well, the story of Elsa and Lohengrin bears too strong a resemblance to be a mere coincidence. Accused by Friedrich and his evil wife Ortrud of murdering her brother, Elsa is championed by a wondrous knight who arrives pulled to shore by a swan and easily defeats Elsa’s accuser. Since she has already announced that her champion will also be her husband, the knight agrees but on the sole condition that she never ask his name or origins.

Ortrud easily convinces the otherwise perfect Elsa that her accuser had been overcome by magic, and that Elsa had best find out the forbidden details lest she be wed to a sorcerer. True to the tradition of Eve in the story, Elsa cannot resist the temptation and asks her husband on their bridal night. Now he must tell his secret to the whole world, but he can no longer stay with her.

It turns out that he is the Knight of the Holy Grail, Lohengrin, the son of Parzifal; and off he goes, pulled by his “beloved swan”–which just happens to be Elsa’s missing brother, transformed by Ortrud to advance her husband’s status. As for Elsa, there is nothing for it but to sink to the ground as her virtuous spouse sails off.

51oJAJptQqL._AA160_There is a neat twist on this theme in Puccini’s “Turandot.” Here a nameless suitor successfully answers three riddles at the risk of his head and wins the haughty Princess Turandot as his bride. But in a burst of fair play, he tells her that he will lose his head if she can find out his name before dawn.

Another variation comes in Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” in which his new bride Judith cannot resist insisting that he show her the contents of several rooms in the castle. The last one contains all his former wives, who asked the same fatal question about that room, and she joins them as he laments her loss.

Son of the Mikado in disguise (Derek Oldham as Nanki-Poo)

(You might even think of “The Mikado,” in which a semi-divine man, Nanki-Poo, is disguised as a wand’ring minstrel; but he willingly reveals his identity as soon as he is alone with Yum-Yum, so that does not count.)

One artist’s view of Cupid and Psyche

Now what exactly is the meaning of all this? One very obvious similarity is that it is always the Male who imposes the conditions for marriage; and I suppose (alas) that historically this is the correct way of doing things. But why should a man impose such ignorance upon a bride to begin with? Cupid would not allow himself to be seen, no less named. We know from other Greek myths and writers of the time that while Immortals often succumbed to the charms of mortals, they felt degraded afterwards. This, perhaps, lets us into Cupid’s motivation for imposing those restrictions. He was, of course, an immortal and they worked by their set of rules.

Lohengrin was a little more than simply mortal, but he had all sorts of divine backing, which imposed upon him the the duty not to reveal himself. Therefore he had to make those demands on Elsa, since he was required to do so. The Prince in “Turandot” was just being a Good Sport and did not want her in the mood she was in when he unexpectedly won her.

Granted: males can impose conditions and females cannot. But why this condition? Why the prohibition against asking a name? We know that in very ancient Greece, you could put a curse on a chap by scraping his name into a piece of lead and throwing it into the sea. The name IS the man. If you do not know my name, you do not know me; and if you do not know me, I am not vulnerable to you, I am in no danger from you, you have no power over me.

Bluebeard and latest wife, according to Gustave Dore

Well, that seems to fit Cupid and Lohengrin to a greater and lesser degree. The Prince is daring Turandot to find his name, knowing full well that she will not succeed. Though why this should make her love him is only for the mythographers to say. Bluebeard might bring us closer to the answer by forbidding his wife to look into his rooms. Of course, here the symbolism is pretty obvious. The rooms of a man’s mind are not always open to others, even to a Beloved. So it is not so much No Girls Allowed but more of a general No Admittance, Private Property to one and all.

I am not offering any definitive answers. Just consider the power of this mythic element and perhaps ask yourself a few questions.

Essays Literary sources

Play Long Gone, Music Lingers On


IMG_20150612_0003_NEWPlay Long Gone, Music Lingers On

Often a composer was commissioned to provide a score of “incidental” music for a play. And often the score would become far more popular than the play itself. For example, millions have heard Grieg’s music to Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” without having read a single line from the play. The ratio might decrease with Mendelssohn’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and I dare say that the most ardent lovers of Bizet’s incidental music to Daudet’s “L’Arlesienne” might be entirely unaware that such a play exists.

Alphonse Daudet was a French author, best known today for his “Lettres de mon moulin” (Letters from my mill), which appeared in 1872. Part of that collection was a novel titled “L’Arlesienne” (The girl from Arles). It was good enough to attract the attention of an impresario who commissioned Daudet to turn the novel into a play, which was to contain three acts and five tableaux with music and chorus.

For a composer, they turned to George Bizet, who was delighted to work with such an esteemed author and provided 27 miniatures, many of which are minor masterpieces of that genre. There are some recordings of the complete score (some of which unwisely add lines of dialogue that seriously interfere with the music), the best of which in my opinion is the EMI CD with Michel Plasson conducting.

As for the play itself, it is distinguished only by the titular female never appearing in the course of the action! In Provence, there are two brothers, one of whom is a simpleton, the other is obsessed with a girl from Arles. (It must be hard to tell them apart.) The latter cannot cope with learning that she has been “unfaithful” and leaps from a high window to end the play. After being shown to 21 nearly empty houses, the play folded. Happily, Bizet’s music lived on.

It is mostly played in a four-part suite arranged by Bizet himself and in a second suite arranged by Bizet’s pupil Ernest Guiraud (who also reset the spoken dialogue of “Carmen” to recitative form, so it could play as a through-sung work at the Opera).

Quite some time ago, I heard an opera by Francesco Cilea titled “L’arlesiana,” which follows Daudet’s play fairly closely. It is pleasant enough, but the music will never eclipse that of Bizet.

51kh6WYT7iL._AA160_ (1)Franz Schubert was also asked to compose the incidental music for a play that not only was a failure but all copies of which have been lost! The play by Helmina von Chezy was called “Rosamunde, Furstin von Zypern” (Rosamonda, Princess of Cypress). The music too was lost. Lost that is until two gentlemen named George Grove and Arthur Sullivan hunted in basements and attics to restore to the world so much of Schubert’s music, among which was his Rosamunde score.

The overture has become a familiar concert favorite, although the entire incidental music is seldom played. There are, however, several recordings of the complete score. How interesting, though, it would be to have the play available also, as poor as it might have been.

This discussion can be extended to film scores. In the case of “Laura,” the film is still shown frequently on television and its haunting theme song also turns up on CD collections of music from the cinema. But what about “The Warsaw Concerto”? How many who still recall that melody can place it in the context of its film and even name the composer? (See below for answer.)

download (1)An interesting specialized collection can be found on an old Naxos CD, titled “Warsaw Concerto and other Piano Concertos from the Movies.” It includes nine examples of piano concertos heard in films either as background music or played by one of the characters as part of the plot. They range from interesting to quite lovely, and each can exist as absolute music with no reference to the films for which they were composed.

Again, I ask my readers if they can think of further examples of music that has outlived its play or film.

Oh, as for “Warsaw Concerto,” it was heard in the 1941 film “Dangerous Moonlight,” the story of a concert pianist who does his bit during World War II. The composer is Richard Addinsell.

Essays Literary sources

Music and the Myth of Orpheus

IMG_20150527_0001_NEWMusic and the Myth of Orpheus

  In other essays I  have traced several myths and legends through their various musical settings, but none comes closer to the nature of music itself than does the myth of Orpheus. So it would certainly be worth devoting an article or two to this ever-fascinating subject.

By the name shall you know the meaning of the myth. For example, “Achilles” means “no lips,” an apt nickname for an angry man; while the meaning of “Oedipus” or “swollen foot” is actually mentioned in the first of his three plays. “Orpheus,” alas, is of unknown origin. Robert Graves thinks it might have something to do with a riverbank; and indeed the character had to wait at the banks of the Styx to gain entrance to Hades. But his story is well enough known, especially in the version given by Ovid in his “Metamorphoses.”

His parents were the muse Calliope (“fair eyes”) and a mortal, King Oeagras. However, some writers say Apollo was his father; but this seems like a later change when Orpheus became the central character of a religion and a human father was an embarrassment.  Because of his marvelous talents for singing and playing the lyre, a gift from Apollo, Orpheus could make “the trees, And the mountain tops that freeze, Bow themselves when he sing” (as Shakespeare expresses it in “Henry VIII”). After sailing with Jason on the Argos, he married Eurydice (“wide justice”) whom he loved so dearly that when she was fatally stung by a snake, Orpheus determined to take her back from the very bowels of Hades. Like Lot’s wife, he could not look behind him as she followed him up the steep and narrow path. But when he came to the surface, he looked back too soon and lost her forever.

Naturally a religion sprang up around his name about the same time that a rival religion centered around Dionysus was entering Greece from Asia Minor. One story has it that the female followers of the Eastern deity stormed Orpheus’ temple and tore him to pieces. The resemblance to the dismemberment of Osiris in Egyptian tales is notable.  Another story has him destroyed by a bolt from Zeus who was angry about his revealing certain secrets. At any rate, there is a good deal of mysticism upon which this story is based. Nevertheless, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a thumping good one and bound to attract many a librettist.

In fact, it formed the basis of the second opera as we use that term today. When Aristotle’s “Poetics” was rediscovered in 1498 by Europeans, it started a Hellenophile movement that has never really ended. After the success of the very first opera called “Dafne,” which tried very hard never to let the music intrude itself upon the audience’s attention, the same composer and librettist (Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini) created “Euridice.” Telling the basic story by way of much dry recite and some pastoral-type arias, the work is introduced by Tragedy who addresses the audience, after which things go according to the legend until the ascent to Earth upon which no prohibited backward look is imposed–and all ends happily.

download (1)Of course none of this was very dramatic and the lack of great melodic interest was threatening to stifle this new invention called Opera Seria in its infancy. At least it was so in Florence. In Rome, however, composers were experimenting with something that developed into the “aria.” In the nature of such things, there always seems to be a genius around at the right moment, and in this case he was named Claudio Monteverdi. It need not concern us here that we have no definitive score to his “Orfeo” (1607). What is important is that the titular hero became a symbol of what Tennyson was going to immortalize in his dramatic monologue “Ulysses”: the man who strives against all odds.

The pivotal scene of the work is the long, embellished aria Orfeo sings to Charon to beg the oarsman to take him over the Styx. As one commentator points out, the song has no effect but the singer’s plainspoken demand to the gods of the underworld does!  The librettist wanted the work to end with Orfeo’s death by mutilation; but Monteverdi insisted on an ending that has Apollo resurrect the singer as stars in the sky. The theatrical effect of all of this is captured beautifully on a video of this opera issued by London in 1978.

download (5)Less familiar operatic versions are Landi’s “La morte d’Orfeo” (1619), Rossi’s “Orfeo” (1647), and Charpentier’s “La descente d’Orphee aux Enfers” (1687). The latter work is now available on the Erato label and shows how important melody has become by this stage. Here Apollo is the hero’s father and it is he who persuades him to rescue Euridice (a variant spelling). Once in Hades, Orpheus’ singing dissolves even the Furies to tears. A new twist is added by Pluto’s being persuaded that since the loving couple must die eventually and return to him The god consents and all ends happily. There might have been a third act, but that is conjectural. What is amusing here is the almost Gilbertian solution at the end that gives the happy ending so beloved of the courtiers of that time.

After Monteverdi, opera seria fell into a fatal formula that was imposed by egocentric singers. Each “star” expected 5 or six arias to herself and those had to come at the end of each act so they could be followed by a dramatic exit. Never mind that arias were not expected to advance the plot one bit. Each was expected to be composed in such a way as to best show up the vocal pyrotechnics of the soloist, even if that meant letting four lines of lyrics take over five minutes to be sung.  Should a rare duet be allowed, the two singers were never to sing at the same time. Only during the finale were all the singers called upon to blend their voices–a tactful way, I would guess, of avoiding bloodshed over whose voice should be the last heard.

download (2)This is the sort of nonsense that composers like Gluck were determined to eradicate, along with its long ballets, divertissements, and undramatic devices. Let the situation shape the aria, was his method, and not let the situation simply be an excuse for the aria. Thus we have in his “Orfeo ed Euridice” (1762) a true collaboration between composer and librettist (Calzabigi), rather than the composer being handed a ready text that could not be changed.

Although there are three versions of this work, the plot is pretty much the same in each. Euridice is already dead when the curtain goes up, and Orfeo is so distraught that Amore takes pity on him (today “him” is a mezzo in the Italian score, a tenor in the French) and tells the husband that he can regain his wife only if he does not look back until they are over the Styx. The second scene has Orfeo persuade the Spirits of Tartarus to allow him into the Elysian Fields, where he finds but does not look upon his beloved. In the final scene, she follows but is convinced he no longer loves her since he will not even look at her. Since he is bound by his agreement with Amore not to explain (a bit silly but necessary for this version), she thinks he no longer loves her. He is moved to look back and lose her. His famous lament, “Che faro senza Euridice,” so saddens Amore that the deity restores Euridice to life and all ends happily.

Now this ending is not an arbitrary decision on the part of librettist and composer. The work was written to help celebrate the name day of Emperor Francis I of Austria. Therefore it could not possibly have a tragic ending and it could not be too long. Simple as that.

download (3)But it took the operatic world by storm and was so popular that Offenbach thought it could use a good cold splash of satire and parody. Hence “Orphee aux Enfers” (1858) and a great success by scandal, as the French put it. When the scholars attacked the work as a disgrace to classical education and a desecration of a venerable myth, the public needed no more to rush to where it was playing. In fact, the Can-can at the end (for the Furies had become indistinguishable from the Moulin Rouge you-know-whats) proved so physically demanding that legend has it that the cast had to discontinue the run out of sheer exhaustion.

There is a two and a three act version of this wonderful spoof, but the plot is very much the same. Pluton is in love with Euridice and woos her disguised as a shepherd. For her part, she cannot stand her cello-playing husband, who tortures her with his new concerto (actually quite lovely) and then is delighted to find that she has been taken below. However a character called Public Opinion (mezzo) decrees that at least one husband has to show enough devotion to go to Hell for his wife; and the two go to Mount Olympus to obtain permission.

Up there, the gods and goddesses are quite bored with their steady diet of nectar and ambrosia and to the strains of La Marseillaise revolt against Jupiter. When the latter turns all moral about the rape of Euridice, his family reminds him of all the young women he took by force or deceit. Then they all insist on having a vacation down in the Underworld where  (pre-echoes of G. B. Shaw!) life is so much more interesting.

Meanwhile, like Manon in her own opera, Euridice is not entirely content with her lot, but is fascinated by a strange fly that is buzzing around and can sing his half of a duet–Jupiter in one of his disguises. When Orpheus shows up to claim his spouse, the usual condition is imposed, but it is a thunderclap from Jupiter that makes him turn around and lose her. He is quite happy to let things stand as is, while the wife is very happy to remain where she is as a Bacchante. And all ends with a reprise of the Can-can.

(I can almost picture a American Vaudeville version in which the hero returns to the surface and finds success with his lyre act on the Orpheum Circuit!)

There was a cartoon in a contemporary French paper in which a couple asks a coachman to take them to the theater to see “Orpheus”; and he asks if they mean the boring one or the funny one. Poor Gluck! At any rate, there is a new recording on the EMI label of the shorter version that might prove interesting hearing beside the Monteverdi, Charpentier and Gluck interpretations, all of which are easily found on records. And be sure to catch the direct quote from Gluck’s famous lament that Offenbach slips in.

download (4)At least two versions of this legend can be seen on film. “Black Orpheus” and the French fantasy directed by Cocteau. In the latter, Death is a woman who falls in love with the poet Orpheus and Hell a place where one simply keeps on doing what one did in life for all eternity.

But is that not the very nature of a fine myth? Every age can find meanings undreamed of by the creators of the original. And (no pun intended) the Orpheus story seems to strike very deep chords in all of us.

Essays Literary sources

The Musical Falstaff

Falstaff The Musical Falstaff 

Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” may not be his greatest comedy but it certainly is the one that has attracted more composers than any of his others. Written (legend says) at the request of Queen Elizabeth who wanted to see the Fat Knight in Love, it shows all the signs of great haste. It is also, as many have commented, not about the Great Falstaff of the “Henry IV” plays but the Lesser One; not the Falstaff who is the cause of merriment in others but the dupe and gull of others; not the Falstaff who can see through every pretension because he himself is the ultimate con-man but the Falstaff who can be fooled by three women with very little effort.

Of the five operas that we will consider, the “Falstaff” of Antonio Salieri is the first. First shown in 1799 with a libretto by Carlo Prospers Defranceshi, it reduces Shakespeare’s cast of 20  to 7: Falstaff and his servant Bardolfo, Mr and Mrs Ford, Mr and Mrs Slender (instead of Page), and a maid called Betty. The first act shows Falstaff acting the fool at a party and the rest of the play pretty closely follows the original, including the episode of Falstaff in drag. The best scene is the one in which  Mrs Slender (in the absence of Quickly) comes in disguise to Falstaff, professing to speak only German and a few words of English while Falstaff is in the opposite linguistic boat (all the while singing, of course, in Italian).

Modern audiences will not approve of the long passages of dry recite, but the streamlined version moves quickly and there are many funny moments. There are, alas, very few musical ones that will linger in the memory. Fortunately there is a DVD of a recent production available on the Arthaus Musik label (100 023), from which you can draw your own conclusions.

The young lovers are discovered behind a screen

The 1849 “Die Lustigen Wieber von Windsor” by Otto Nicolai is only partly in the opera buffa tradition. The duet between Falstaff and the disguised husband is indeed labeled “buffa duet” in some libretti; but here we have lots of that early German Romanticism that works wonders in the Windsor Forest scene that ends the play. The cast is now up to 9 characters: Herr and Frau Fluth (“Brook”), Herr and Frau Reich with daughter Anna, Fenton, Spaerlich (Slender), Dr. Caius, and of course Falstaff but without his companions. The libretto of Hermann von Mosenthal is extremely faithful to its source. In true opera tradition, Falstaff is given a drinking song that turns out to be Feste’s “Wind and the Rain” ditty from “Twelfth Night.” The joke here is that it is sung laboriously by the Fat Man and is punctuated by “eins, zwei, drei” as he guzzles down his drinks.

There is a German made-for-television film that has never been reissued on tape or DVD. Why not?

Although Verdi’s “Falstaff” should come next historically, I want to devote an entire article to it. So let us skip to two English works.

41SW45ZTYEL._AA160_In 1924, Gustav Holst had completed his “At the Boar’s Head, Op. 42,” a short musical treatment of scenes from “Henry IV, Parts I and II.” What Holst did here was to retain abridged versions of Shakespeare’s very lines, interpolating Sonnets XIX and XII and a few traditional songs. Naturally, setting prose to music does not produce many memorable melodies. But we have here the Great Falstaff and the general effect is very effective indeed. Perhaps some local opera group would consider reviving this worthy work. There is a recording on EMI (65127 2) that is quite good.

sir john“Sir John in Love” (1929) has both words and music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This is my special favorite for one reason. The composer has incorporated within his score some of the loveliest of English folk songs and they work like a charm! Even one hearing will reveal the beauty of this score; but unfortunately there do not seem to be many copies available of the excellent EMI recording of 1975 that was released on CDs in 1997 with Meredith Davies conducting. If you can find a copy, grab it. I got mine through A video is yet to be made. Why not?

The cast is back to 20 with one or two changes from the original and the incident of Falstaff dressed as an old woman is dropped. (Boito too did not include it in his streamlined libretto for Verdi.) Indeed a good deal of the dialogue is dropped to make room for the interpolated songs. But since all of them are either from Shakespeare’s own plays or from his times, I would say that this is closest in spirit to the original than any of the others.

And so, this leaves us with the Verdi work that shows us the complete marriage of drama and music in the Italian’s view of things, not the Wagnerian one.   There was no doubt in Verdi’s mind that “Aida” was to be his last opera, just as there had been no doubt that “Don Carlos” before it was to be the last. But ironically, fate sent the most outspoken critic of Italian music many years before (and Italian music meant Verdi’s music), a young rebel named Arrigo Boito, who offered the maestro a libretto that he couldn’t refuse.

Having had to do his best with a not quite up to snuff libretto for his “Macbetto” and never having realized his lifelong ambition to compose “Il Re Lear,” Verdi saw at once the musical possibilities in  Boito’s libretto for “Otello,” about which I will have much to say in some future article. Well, that would definitely be the last opera. Until, of course, Boito’s next libretto, “Falstaff,” was presented; and … what can one do?

Only once before Verdi had tried a comic opera. Back in 1840 his “Giorno di regno” was hooted off the stage and Verdi knew he would never be a composer. The legend he made up about how the libretto to “Nabucco,” thrust into his pocket by his impresario, happened to fall open to the chorus of Hebrew slaves is no longer believed but is too picturesque to be forgotten. At any rate, Verdi was 76 years old when “Falstaff” came his way; but no one hearing it would guess the age of the composer of such light and witty music.

On the other hand, no one but a very mature and experienced one could come the closest Italian opera had known up to then to a totally integrated music/drama. And that in a most un-Wagnerian way. The only similarities between Verdi and the German is that the music runs almost seamlessly from section to section with only two “arias”–one of which lasts little more than a minute and the other which is never completed–and only one duet for the lovers that is twice interrupted by the entrance of the other characters.

The Wives are named Page and Ford but Mr. Page is written out of the script. Falstaff is accompanied now by Bardolfo and Pistola, Dame Quickly is the go-between, Anne is called Nannetta, Fenton is her tenor lover, while Dr. Caius and the Host round out the cast and give two more voices to the ensembles.

Boito includes passages from the “Henry IV” histories so that we have a (forgive me) weightier Falstaff than the one in Salieri, Nicolai and Vaughan Williams, but a more inconsistent one. Would a man who can sing the speech about Honor be so easily fooled by the rest of the cast? Even the great speech about the benefits of sack from “Henry IV, Part II” is included after his dunking into the Thames. In fact, Verdi makes a musical miracle of it by matching the “trillo” (“thrill”) in the lyrics sung by the imbibing knight with a crescendo of trills in the orchestra that warms us all. Think of the first rays of the sun hitting the Rhine Gold for an equally impressive moment in opera.

As does Puccini in the opening minutes of “Manon Lescaut,” Verdi seems to sprinkle melodies around as if from a bottomless reserve. What might have been major arias for lesser composers become mere throw-aways here. The ensembles are the most complex ever written up to then, many sung without any accompaniment, with each voice part totally unintelligible and the whole coming across as a literal torrent of sound. Semi-professional singers I have spoken with claim that rehearsing these numbers has caused more headaches than any other opera selections in their experience.

The most complex of them all is the scene in which Falstaff is singing from the laundry basket, Nannetta and Fenton from behind a screen, and each of the main characters singing solo and ensemble lines as they first search the house for the adulterer and then sneak up on the screen from which the young lovers manage to kiss two quick kisses. This is funny even on a recording without the stage business visible, all the more so in a live performance or video version. (Some have suggested that the famous Toscanini recording on RCA Victor is devoid of humor, but I find it to be quite funny where it should be.)

It is in the last of the six scenes, the Windsor Forest sequence, that Verdi’s most magical musical moments can be found. None of the other composers discussed in the last article come near the supernatural feeling invoked by the Italian master; and I am sure Shakespeare would have preferred this version to all the others.

Tongue firmly in cheek, Verdi decided to end his operatic career with that most scholarly of all musical forms, the fugue. Using the Italian equivalent of “All the world’s a stage” (“Tutto nel mondo e burla”) and composing it in C major, Verdi rings down the curtain not only on the best of the Falstaff dramatizations but on his own operatic career.