Some of Opera’s Little Inside Jokes

61Fkw5KeniL._AA160_Some of Opera’s Little Inside Jokes

The things we miss that a first-night audience caught immediately! I have always suspected an inside gag when Polonius tells Hamlet that he once played Brutus. Could it be that he really did? By which I mean, did the same actor who played Brutus in “Julius Caesar” possibly play Polonius in “Hamlet,” which seems to have been written soon after?

51vXsWzszeL._AA160_In the final scene (before the epilogue) of “Don Giovanni,” the Don has an on-stage ensemble playing tunes from three popular operas of Mozart’s time, the last of which is the “Non piu andrai” from “Le Nozze di Figaro.” The servant Leporello complains “I’ve had too much of that one!” While most current audiences spot the joke of Mozart using his own tune from his last opera, the really funny point is lost to them. The singer playing Leporello was indeed the very one who sang Figaro and therefore might very well be tired of that song.

Another self-reference comes in the third act of “La Belle Helene,” when Agamemnon, Menelaus and Calchus are decrying the lack of morals in Greece (=Paris). When they mention how even the quality of the music has decayed, the orchestra strikes up a slightly disguised version of a tune from Offenbach’s own “Orphee aux enfers” to underscore their complaint.

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This video has some bad cuts but it does have Vincent Price!

But of all the comic operas, the one that might need the most footnotes for our enjoyment of the work today is Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore.” Based on an earlier play written for private performance, “Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse” tells the tale of Robin Oakapple, a village youth, who is in reality Sir Ruthven (pronounced Rivven) Murgatroyd. Thinking Ruthven dead, the younger brother, Sir Despard, has inherited the family curse, put upon them long ago by a witch, which obliges him to commit one crime a day or die in horrible agony at the hands of the pictures of all of his ancestors who step out of their frames to accomplish this. Er, yes, that is Gilbert having a lot of fun with the Gothic plot that even by his day had been greatly outdated, plots that in the 1960s were revived in all those Vincent Price films. (Note: Price himself plays Sir Despard in the BBC version of “Ruddigore” and is a non-singing delight.)

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All but the most patriotic British vampires would fear this

One of the production numbers in the Act I finale is a salute to the four seasons that is followed by a lovely dance, a combination which might become your favorite choral piece from all of the “Savoy” operas. Later in Act II, there is a funny bit in which Robin, now a wicked baronet, threatens a young maiden and her sailor fiance but is thwarted when the sailor holds aloft a Union Jack, before which Robin cringes. There is only audio recording of this work with all the dialogue (Ohio Light Opera on the Albany label) and I hold it among my favorites, mainly because it is so seldom done.

So witness my amazement when a baritone I once knew asked us to see him in a production of an obscure opera called “The Vampyre” in an English translation at some church in mid-Manhattan. Composed at the height of the German Romantic period, this opera tells the tale of a Vampyre named–hold on–Ruthven and…!

Suddenly the Union Jack sight gag made sense to me. What is the obvious feature of a Union Jack? A cross! Anathema to any good vampire and how the original “Ruddigore” audience must have laughed since “The Vampyre” was probably well known to many of them. No, I have no record of performances of this work in Gilbert’s day, but it is obvious that he was familiar with it and one can assume so was his audience.

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Sorcerer + incantation + teacup = spoof of “Der Freischutz”

But wait. In Act II of the German work, some characters step forward and sing a song celebrating the seasons. Of course, here it is a drinking song, something that Gilbert uses only in “The Sorcerer” (in which case the drink is tea) and in “The Grand Duke” (in which it is only a recollection of some Pommery 74 at a past affair). For those of you familiar with the “Ruddigore” lyrics, here is a prose translation of the first verse from “The Vampyre”: “In winter, one must drink; the blood of the grape warms us and thereby wine tastes so good.” In “Ruddigore” we have: “In the spring-time seed is sown/In the winter grass is mown/In the autumn you may reap/Winter is the time for sleep.” A different point of view but still too much for coincidence, I must say.

Yet another joking reference is in the “Incantation” scene from “The Sorcerer,” in which the music and offstage chorus is very similar to that in the Von Weber opera “Der Freischutz” in which the magic bullets are cast. It is only the situation that make the Gilbert scene funny, while Sullivan’s music is magnificently serious.

Now this is but one slightly extended example of how digging into the background of a work can enhance our appreciation of that work enormously. Can you imagine how that would do for a complex work like Wagner’s Ring Cycle? Worth a short series of essays, perhaps? We shall see.

I Have a Song to Sing, O!

BalladI Have a Song to Sing, O!

When the players arrive at Elsinore and Hamlet asks them to perform “The Murder of Gonzago” so he can catch the conscience of the King,” Shakespeare had a problem. Since the characters in “Hamlet” speak for the most part in iambic pentameter and the players will speak in iambic pentameter in the play within the play, the challenge was to make the “Gonzago” dialogue SOUND like dialogue while the dialogue of “Hamlet” would still sound natural.

Shakespeare’s solution to this problem was to make the dialogue of the inner play sound old fashioned and clunky relative to the speech of the “real” characters. In musical work, opera or musical comedy or whatever, most of the songs are supposed to be extensions of the spoken dialogue (as in “The Magic Flute” or “The Mikado) or as emotional highlights in a work in which all the lines are sung. But now and then, the plot requires that a “song” be sung as a song and not as dialogue. How to deal with this?

Mozart had this problem in “Le Nozze di Figaro” when Cherubino is asked to sing his ditty to the Countess. Of course, these characters do nothing but singing—so how to make the song sound like a song rather than the sung-dialogue that is the very nature of opera? The best even Mozart could do is make the orchestra sound like the guitar that Suzanna usually makes believe she is playing while Cherubino warbles away. (See picture above.)

And how familiar is Don Giovanni’s serenade to his own (usually feigned) accompaniment on a lute! And the Merry Widow’s tale of Villia! And so on down the line.

Very early into Act I of Rossini’s “Il Barbieri di Seviglia,” the Count must sing a serenade; and again, he is provided with a guitar that he should actually play if he can while vocalizing. In the third act, Rosina has a music lesson, and it is the context that makes it sound like the character is engaged in a song.

In Wagner, two examples “songs” that have to sound like songs and not part of the opera that contains them are the hymn to Venus and the contest songs in “Tannhauser” and the “Prize Song” in “Die Meistersinger.” The first has a lute accompaniment, while the latter example is simply more melodic than is the rest of the score.

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Chaliapin as a singing Mephistopheles in 1915

When Brander and afterward Mephistopheles are asked to sing a song in both Gounod’s “Faust” and Berlioz’ “Damnation of Faust,” the former obliges with his Song of the Rat (curtailed in the Gounod version) and the devil delivers the Song of the Golden Calf in Gounod and the Song of the Flea in Berlioz. Somehow, all four do sound like songs, despite the fact that everything up to then has been sung. The same is true about the serenade that the Devil sings in both versions, as well as Gretchen’s Spinning Song. It might be psychological, but they do somehow sound different from the other numbers.

The reason, perhaps, that so many musical comedies are concerned with a troupe putting on a show is that there is lots of occasion for a song to be thrown in as part of the show within the show and therefore needing no motivation for its appearance. The question for a discerning composer is how to make the song sound as if it is not part of the framing plot but part of the show-within-the-show.

Kiss_Me_Kate_1950_LP_CoverCole Porter tried in “Kiss Me Kate” to have the “Taming of the Shrew” songs sound more like Renaissance pieces than the songs sung backstage. So “Why can’t you behave?” (a framing plot song) should not sound too much like “Tom, Dick or Harry” (a “Taming” song). In long-forgotten ‘Me and Juliet,” is quite impossible to know when heard out of context which song belongs at which level. Is “No other love have I” part of the framing plot or of the show they are rehearsing?

In “Pajama Game,” the song “Too darn hot” takes place during a show given by the pajama workers, while “Hernando’s Hideaway” is part of the main plot. I hear little difference between them. “There’s no business like show business” might be part of Buffalo Bill’s show in “Annie Get Your Gun” or might be an expression of joy or an explanation of what life is like in show business. The last choice is the true one, but out of context it is impossible to tell.

215px-Guys_and_dollsTake as a last case in point “Guys and Dolls.” “Bushel and a peck” is sung by the chorus on a stage, while “Sue me” is part of the plot. The latter is more dramatic, the former more four-square.  In fact, “Bushel” and “Take back your mink” are sung in a nasal tone by the chorus girls to underline even more that this is a “song” number and not a plot number. Even one unfamiliar with the show could tell which is a main plot, which a show-in-a-show number. But this is quite rare in musical comedy—and indeed even rarer in opera.

A composer in my area wrote the music, lyrics and book to a musical. The second act began with the full cast on stage and someone saying to one of the leads, “Why don’t you sing us a song?” Well, further experience will surely have him avoid such a sledgehammer cue. On the other hand, it was the best musical moment in the work. The rest was reboiled retro.

I wonder if anyone of my readers could give me some examples of “songs” within musicals that are unquestioningly songs being sung as opposed to plot songs that the audience assumes are being spoken in singing voice with an invisible orchestra playing.

“Magic Flute” Sequel is Given a Lively Production

 

IMG_20150616_0001“Magic Flute” Sequel is Given a Lively Production

  Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto to “The Magic Flute” in 1791, the year of Mozart’s death, decided later on to cash in on the first success with a sequel? He called it “The Labyrinth,” and a composer named Peter von Winter composed the score. It opened in 1798.

Happily, the results can be seen on a set of two ArtHaus Musik DVDs. Here a “shortened version” (running 158 minutes) is taken from a 2012 performance in the courtyard of the Residenzhof, Salzburg Festival, conducted by Ivor Bolton.

There the plot alternates between Papageno (Thomas Tatzl) and Pagagena (Regula Muhlemann) and her Tamino (Michael Schade) and his Pamina (Malin Hartelius). There is Luna, the Queen of the Night (Julia Novikova), trying to get back at Sarastro (Christof Fischesser); and  the evil Tipheus (Clemens Unterreiner) and the Moor Monostros (Klaus Kuttler) both trying to get Pamina into their clutches.

There are Papageno’s many children and even his parents. It all seems very repetitious, but the music keeps things bouncing alone, despite some pauses between dialogue and the next musical passage.

Von Winter tries so hard to copy the Mozart style without sounding too much like Mozart. In Luna’s Act I aria, I kept expecting the magic of her “Magic Flute” coloratura to break out; but of course von Winter could not let that happen. Indeed, the entire score is filled with Mozartian potential without quite getting there.

The staging is thoroughly within the style of the late 1700s, as are the costumes. However, the black masks worn by the Moors are totally unacceptable today. These latex masks that resemble the white blackface performers in the old minstrel shows; and many viewers, especially over here, will be offended. The large chorus is simply dressed in modern black suits.d gowns.

The picture is in widescreen and the subtitles are in six languages. This is a surprise treat to all opera lovers.

Sokolov and Pollini

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Two Great Pianists Are Featured on CDs

Deutsche Grammophon has issued two CD sets that will be of great interest to those who follow the careers of the top pianists.

“Sokolov, The Salzburg Recital” captures on two discs Grigory Sokolov’s performance (or whatever part of it was retained) at the 2008 Salzburg Festival. He begins with two Mozart piano sonatas, K. 280 and K. 332, both in F major. The second part, on the second disc, consists of the 24 Chopin “Preludes.” The program ends with six encores by Scriabin, Chopin, Rameau, and J.S. Bach.

The program notes have much to say about Sokolov’s career and technique, all of which will be of great interest to both teachers and students of the classical keyboard.

A-PolliniOf greater interest is Beethoven’s “Complete Piano Sonatas,” as played by Italian virtuoso Maurizio Pollini. While the program notes are concerned only with the composer’s works, it is well known that Pollini began to record the cycle in 1975 and completed it in time for that CD to appear as a single at the same time this 8-CD boxed set was issued. So this might hold some sort of record—40 years—to complete a project such as this one!

Now, I have studiously avoided making any comments about the quality of playing of either artist in this report. Chopin’s notes are there on the page with as many dynamic markings as the composer chose to include. The same for Beethoven’s. Pollini’s “Moonlight Sonata” is not Schnabel’s or Richter’s or (for all we know) Beethoven’s.

But I read reviews of his recordings of these works, as they appeared over the years, in old editions of “The Penguin Guide”; and they are uniformly highly praised. So I would give careful consideration to this new set.