A “Carmen” to Avoid

A-OP-Carmen (Vernona)A “CARMEN ” to Avoid

With all the video versions of Bizet’s “Carmen” available, there is no excuse for the Arena di Verona 2014 version on a BelAir DVD. It is the same Zeffirelli production that is still available on a TDK video, with all its excesses, constant crowd movement, groups of dancers forever going into their routines, and lots of horses.

The Don Jose (Carlo Ventre) and Carmen (Ekaterina Semenchuk) are not romantic looking, are not especially good actors, and have not particularly spectacular voices. Even the Escamillo (Carlos Alvarez) has little stage presence, but Irina Lungu is an attractive Micaela. The best voice in the cast is that of Seung Pil Choi as Zuniga. The children’s chorus is charmless.

And why couldn’t the children, as well as some of the soloists, be told that a final “e” in French is pronounced “eh” and not “ay” as in Italian? So “garde” is “gar-deh” and not “gar-day.” A small point, but annoying when more attention is paid to spectacle than the language of the text.

Other details are superfluous. This is a “Carmen” to avoid.





Obsession is Basis of Rarely Done Opera 

 A-OP-Arlesiana A collection of short stories by Alphonse Daudet titled “Letters from My Mill” appeared in 1862. A decade later, Daudet used one of the short stories as a play titled “L’Arlesienne” (The Woman from Arles), with incidental music by Georges Bizet. The play flopped but Bizet’s score appeared in two suites and they are the most frequently played CDs in my collection.

The story of a man obsessed by a woman is an ancient one. When Francesco Cilea decided to base an opera on the play, it was decided that the titular female would never appear and the psychological tale would revolve around the obsessed Federico and his mother Rosa Mamai. Premiered in 1897, “L’Arlesiana” had a mild success, but not enough of one to keep Cilea from making many changes. Nevertheless, the opera is seldom performed in major opera houses.

Cilea in his early 30s

So it is a Good Thing to see the first video production as it was performed in 2013 at the Teatro G.B. Pergolesi, Jesi on a Dynamic DVD. The conductor is Francesco Cilluffo. The program notes are quite informative and make a good case for this opera, which is still tonal and melodic but has no “big tunes” that linger in the memory. Indeed, the success of any production of this work lies in the acting abilities of the singers—and of course their voices. Here, the cast does not fail on either ground.

Tenor Dmitry Golovnin makes the crazed Federico believable, while Annunziata Vestri really makes Rosa the main character. Despairing over her younger mentally challenged son, she devotes herself to curing her older son of his obsession. The young Vivetta, in love with Federico, is not given a strong enough character in the script; but Mariangela Sicilia does her best to be at least sympathetic.

The most intense music, dramatically and musically, are “Federico’s Lament” and Rosa’s monologue “It is hell to be a mother.” As the program notes point out, the setting in the lovely Midi region of France is never exploited musically.

The Director could not resist bringing on a mute Arlesiana (so the unimaginative audience could see what Federico was thinking) and even a second Federico locked in a cage in the third act, which seems to be set in some sort of a mental hospital. It is never wise to take an unfamiliar opera and stage it with a “concept,” since it invariably confuses the audience. Even here, what one sees at the last minute contradicts the synopsis given in the program notes.

The running time is 105 minutes and there are subtitles, but no bonus material.

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.


A Controversial “Carmen” is Reissued on CD

A Controversial “Carmen” is Reissued on CDA-OP-Carmen (Horne)

Not only are there many audio recordings of Bizet’s “Carmen” to choose from, but the opera itself exists in different versions. I grew up with the “grand opera” version in which the original spoken dialogue had been turned to sung recitative  by Bizet’s pupil Guiraud. In 1972, at the Metropolitan Opera, Leonard Bernstein put together a production based on the 1875 Opera Comique original (with spoken dialogue) but with his own variations here and there. The critics were divided over the results.

Well, the audio half of those results was preserved on a three-LP set with the same cast. And what is I think the second CD transfer of this recording has been released in a Pentatone set with two discs and a complete libretto (unusual for a reissue of an opera). It is certainly worth the hearing, although it might not be the first choice for those wishing to own just one “Carmen.”

Bernstein’s very slow tempos, especially for Carmen’s arias, might be a put-off for many listeners (as it is for me). His using an alternative setting for the counterpoint of the bullfight offstage and the death of Carmen onstage is quite different from the one heard in every other production—but not necessarily not as good.  Also the spoken dialogue reveals a lack of coaching in French pronunciation in most of the cast.

However, the big plus is that the recording was made after this cast had the experience of performing on stage; and the dramatic urgency shows through in a way seldom heard in a recording rehearsed and made in a studio.

Horne-MarilynThe Big Star here is Marilyn Horne, who has her Carmen down pat. James McCracken has that Wagnerian tenor voice that works for the passionate Don Jose, while Tom Krause is a formidable Escamillo—although he lacks that sexiness that might attract the ladies. Adriana Maliponte as the innocent Micaela is a good foil for the gypsy temptress. The secondary parts of Carmen’s gypsy friends gain much by the spoken dialogue.

Pentatone has packaged this set as a small book with the discs in sleeves behind the front and back cover and some introductory notes, followed by the libretto.

download (9)A good modern recording is the one with Placido Domingo and Tatiana Troyanos, conducted by Georg Solti. And although I grew up with the RCA Victor set with Rise Stevens and Jan Peerce (1951), I still prefer the 1950 set with Raoul Jobin and Solange Michel, with members of the Opera Comique. The pacing is quick, the humor is intact, and the French is perfect in both enunciation and spirit.

Note: The first nominally complete recording of “Carmen” was made in 1908–in German!

Essays Production values

Carmen’s Lunch Break and a Socratic Discourse


Carmen pixCarmen’s Lunch Break and a Socratic Discourse

After hearing “Carmen” on LPs and then CDs and then watching it on DVDs and in live performances, something finally popped into my mind. Does Carmen sing the Habanera EVERY DAY during the break from the cigarette factory?

There is no doubt that the entire male population of Seville tries its luck with her the moment she appears and that the song is an answer to the crowd. But what should motivate her on that particular day to proclaim her Gypsy Woman’s Manifesto?

Reply: This is only an opera and one does not ask questions like that. The character needs an entrance aria and Bizet gives her a good one. That is all we need to know.

Response: Yes, the work might be an opera but it is also a DRAMA. It is one of the earliest operas that looks at and treats life realistically. These are supposed to be real people and it is up to the Director to make them seem real. If she sings that long song at that moment, there must be some motivation for it.

Reply: There is a motivation. You said so yourself. She is responding to the amorous male chorus.

Response: I thought I covered that. They woo her every day. But why respond on this particular day? What is new that day?

Those familiar with the opera know that Don Jose has just joined the Seville regiment and Carmen sees him for the first time. If I were directing, I would play it this way. Don Jose is busy fixing his firing pin and does not see her. She sees him. Bingo! Her next temporary lover.

Even more interesting would be: Bingo! The man who is going to kill her. Since the Fate motif has just been played upon her entrance, this is a distinct possibility. She is turned on by the danger.

In either case,  how to get his attention? Ah, pretend to be addressing the crowd but aim it all at the handsome soldier.

She sings the first stanza but it doesn’t work. Or perhaps it does but Don Jose pretends not to hear or understand what he clearly does hear. So she becomes bolder. She sings the second stanza directly to him, leaving no doubt to any one as to her intentions. In this way, not only is the song as a whole motivated but even the second stanza alone serves a DRAMATIC purpose–as well as revealing not only her character but her methods.

In fact, I would have her coworkers nudge each other with knowing nods and winks. They certain know what is going on. So should the audience.

And thus can a warhorse of an aria become a telling dramatic event.

Reply: Isn’t that exactly what happens in “La Boheme” when Musetta wins back Marcello with her waltz song?

Response: Yes. Puccini’s librettist knew how to use a song to forward the plot. Bizet’s (I feel) merely put in an entrance number. It is up to the Director to coin gold from the ordinary.

A real matador from early 1900s.

In the next act, we see Escamillo responding to the crowd’s acclaim with his “Toreador Song.” Being a conceited and shallow superstar, his motivation is obvious. He loves being admired and reminds his fans about all the things he has done to be admired. I can believe he DOES sing this song at the drop of a hat whenever he thinks the crowd will appreciate it. However, while singing his aria this time, he notices Carmen. And it is always played on stage that the “amours” at the end of his second stanza are directed only at her, while she repeats them only to him.

Here, only the most obtuse Director would ignore the obvious and treat it as just another aria.

And speaking of “La Boheme,” every single number in that all-too-short gem helps advance the plot as well as revealing character. Oh yes, it has been mentioned that Colline’s farewell to his overcoat seems an interpolation; but it is certainly motivated by the circumstances and does show us quite a bit about Colline’s character—not to mention that of his overcoat!

It is sobering to recall that the earliest musicals scarcely had ANY songs that were dramatically motivated at that moment other than the justification that the character was expressing an emotion concerning events at that moment. Early opera is loaded with this kind of arias, because it was the purpose of an aria back then simply to express a single emotion.

When faced with a “realistic” or “verismo” work from about 1870 on, a Director must find dramatic reasons for nearly every musical moment. WHY is this character singing this particular aria at this moment? What does it accomplish? (That last question might prove unsolvable for many arias.) What new information does it reveal about the character?

This is not easy. But many directors of local opera groups or even professional companies might want to consider this question seriously before mounting yet another humdrum production. But for now, give Carmen a break!