Three Puccini Operas from Convent Garden

A-OP-Puccini CollectionThree Puccini Operas from Convent Garden

Three Puccini operas as they were performed at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, are now offered as a boxed set of three OpusArte DVDs, titled simply “Puccini.”

The La Boheme, conducted by Andris Nelsons, was performed in 2011 and I rate it as the best staging of the work I have seen. My favorite bits of business come in Act II when we get to see the cook at the Café Momus and see Musetta (Inna Dukach) shoot some pool before her waltz song. The leads, Teodor Ilincai (Rodolfo) and Hibla Gerzmava (Mimi) are attractive—although physically not quite starving or consumptive respectively; while the other Bohemians—Marcello (Gabriele Viviani), Colline (Kostas Smoriginas) and Schaunard (Jacques Imbrailo)—are completely inside their roles.

Vocally, they are all top notch. Some details of the orchestration, as conducted by Andris Nelsons, are lost in the big house acoustics. Perhaps I am overly conscious of this having spent years listening to studio recordings where these details are quite clear.

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Puccini

Tosca (2006), conducted by Antonio Pappano, has a good Mario in Jonas Kaufmann, while Angela Gheorghiu’s Tosca is more fiery than usual and prone to a bit of overacting. Bryn Terfel so hams it up as Scarpia that if he had a mustache he would twirl it. It was a bad choice to have separated him physically from the rest of the chorus during the mass that ends Act I, the point being that he should be among the worshippers and still “forget God.”

Having no blood on the knife or even on Tosca’s gown or hands is something of a mistake; and having blood all over her written safe conduct is another. (You do know the plot, don’t you?)

Antonio Pappano conducts the dramatic score with lots of energy.

The Turandot (2014) has two faults. Marco Berti is simply not attractive enough for the role of Calaf. (I hope I am not being politically incorrect, but I do believe that looks are important in the theater.) More important the work is staged as a play within a play. The chorus, which is an important character in this work, is all on balconies upstage, while the soloists and dancers move about the stage proper.

All of this not very original concept simply removes the characters two levels away from reality and it is difficult to care about them. This is a shame, because Lise Lindstrom is a very human Turandot and Eri Nakamura a very sympathetic Liu.

The colorful score is well served by conductor Henrik Nanasi.

 

 

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.

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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!

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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!

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.”

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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.

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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

Mythic Themes in Opera: The Unknown Bridegroom

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Lohengrin arrives with his swan.

MYTHIC THEMES IN OPERA: THE UNKNOWN BRIDEGROOM

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

RCA Victor Opera Recordings in 1921

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This CD set holds the oldest “La Boheme” recording that appeared in 1928.

JUST FOR THE RECORD: RCA VICTOR OPERA RECORDINGS IN 1921

When Volume 1 of “Opera on Record”   (Harper) came out in 1979, there were listed 26 complete recordings of “La Boheme” (including one in French, one in Russian and two in German). Since then, I have simply lost track of how many others have been  issued, mostly to feature some current media-hyped star. Since the advent of CDs, many of the older sets are available again; and so Bohemephiles have more than an embarrassment of riches from which to choose their favorite versions.

Not too long ago, I stumbled across a copy of the 1921 edition of “The Victrola Book of the Opera” and recently took a look at what was available back for those who craved a recording of “Boheme.” The pickings were slim indeed.

For starters, there were no complete recordings available in the US. If you wanted to hear Rudolfo’s Act I aria, you could choose from the renditions of Enrico Caruso, Giovanni Martinelli, John McCormack, Orville Harrold–in Italian–and Evan Williams, in English. Each was on a single-faced 12″ disc selling at $1.75. If you wanted to hear it in French, there was a double-facer for $1.50 with Leon Campagnola, with his “Vesti la giubba” (also in French) on the second side.

Mimi’s aria was available with Geraldine Ferrar, Nellie Melba, Lucrezia Bori, and Frances Alda at $1.75 per 12″ single-faced disc. The love duet was rendered by Caruso and Melba ($2.50), Alda and Martinelli ($2.00), and Bori and McCormack ($1.50 on a 10″).

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Alma Gluck

Musetta’s Waltz came in only one version, with Alma Gluck for $1.25 on a 10″. And that is all you could have gotten from Act II. That is unless you wanted a “whistling solo” version of the Waltz on a double-facer with “Carmen” selections for xylophone on the second side for $.85! (If anyone out there has a copy, could you please send me a taping?)

Act III fared much better. There was the Marcello-Mimi scene with Farrar and Antonio Scotti ($2.00); Mimi’s “Addio” with Farrar, Melba, and Gluck ($1.75, $1.75 and $1.25 respectively); and the concluding quartet with Farrar, Gina C. Viapora, Caruso, and Scotti ($3.00). [I find the price variations fascinating and wonder on what they were based.] On a double-facer, you could get the Marcello-Rudolfo-Mimi scene with the Soldiers’ Chorus from “Il Trovatore” on the other side for $1.35.

Act IV was represented by the opening duet (Caruso and Scotti, for $2.00), Colline’s Farewell to his coat (Marcel Journet for $1.25), and the death scene in German (Claire Dux and Karl Jorn) on a double-facer for $1.50.

The only other items listed in the Victrola book are some band selections. Several years would have to pass before an American opera lover could purchase a complete “Boheme” from La Scala on the RCA Victor label.

Considering that “La Boheme” is one of the most beloved operas, what was one to do if one wanted to hear (say) “The Flying Dutchman, ” a work not very high on most people’s list of super-favorites? You had a choice of three double-faced discs. There is the Dutchman’s opening monologue sung by Fritz Feinhals ($1.35), the Spinning Chorus in English (backed up by the Bridal Chorus from “Lohengrin”, $1.35), and Erik’s aria by Karl Jorn ($1.00). And so on.

All of this research brought back memories of when I cherished my little Gilbert & Sullivan excerpt albums long before I finally owned my first complete “Mikado.” (Some of you MUST remember those Nelson Eddy sets of the Patter Songs!) Each hearing was a rare treat, both wonderful and frustrating: I loved what I had and yearned for more. Today I have in my collection about ten “Mikado” sets (only one of which has the dialogue) and four video versions. But somehow all of this completeness never quite compensates for that sense of wonder I experienced in the past. I am sure that when someone back in 1921 put on their brand new Caruso or Melba or Scotti disc, the reverse side shiny, black and empty, there was a thrill when the first notes filled the room through whatever megaphone the set was designed to hold. Today we have supercalifragilistic surround digital heaven-knows-what that is simply ho-hum because we are so jaded.

No, darn it, I could never bring myself to give up my collection of seven complete “Bohemes” and about as many “Aidas” for some scratchy collection of excerpts. But I would like to go into some attic and find a wind-up phonograph with a good Cactus needle and a pile of those “Boheme” discs I listed up above; and spend a few hours of low-fi delight with those joys we have lost in the name of Progress.

 

When Mimi Meets Rodolfo: a Challenge to Directors

BohemeWhen Mimi Meets Rodolfo: a Challenge to Directors

Some time ago, I considered how a director might handle the first meeting of Don Jose and Carmen. Now I would like to do the same with the first meeting of Rodolfo and Mimi in Act I of Puccini’s “La Boheme.”

Those familiar with the opera’s source, Henri Murger’s “Scenes de la vie boheme,” know it to be a series of short stories, through which several main characters appear again and again as in a chemical reaction as they affect and are affected by one another. At least six of them were to appear in Puccini’s treatment of the tragic love between two of them.

In Murger, Mimi is no angel. Driven by the necessities of a life on the edge of starvation and the winter’s cold, she turns, as so many others like her, to the streets, always hoping to find a rich baron or banker who can show her the high life, even for a little while. Puccini’s librettists tried very hard to show her as the good girl with a heart of gold in contrast to Musetta, the whore with the heart of gold.

In the past, I have paid more attention to the music of Mimi’s autobiographical introduction, “Mi chiamano Mimi” than to the words. Poor darling, who does her best to scrape out the meanest existence in a pathetic way but who loves what bits of nature she can capture in her wretched apartment.

And then her candle blows out in the hallway outside the garret apartment of Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard. (The last three are waiting for their poetic friend downstairs with, it would seem, a large degree of patience.) She timidly knocks on the door, Rodolfo opens it, sees her—and love at first sight.

Or is it?

As any good player knows, there is always a silent script that should be passing through an actor’s mind. Permit me to make one up for Mimi.

No rich man for me at present. Starving, freezing. Here’s a good looking young man. But as poor as I am, by the looks of him. Something is better than nothing; some one is better than no one. Just temporary. Let’s try.

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The lovers costumed for the first showing of this opera

She drops her key as if by accident, a candle blows out, they both search and their hands touch. Rodolfo thinks he is in charge and charms her with his autobiographical aria, “Che gelida manina.” In it, he boasts that all his dreams are castles in the air (“castelli in aria”). And he even goes so far as to call her two beautiful eyes thieves, because they stole from him his dreams but replaced them with hope. He has nothing to hide, but he has a very smooth line for a new pretty girl.

This gives her time to think. She must lie…but not too much of a lie. A little hint that she might not be quite what she seems to be. Maybe he knows this already, so be subtle.

“I call myself Mimi, but my name is Lucia,” she sings. Okay, everyone has a nickname in their social circle. She goes on to say that she is tranquil and happy with the small things in life—embroidery, making lilies and roses (false ones, if you get what I mean)—small things that talk of all the things that are called poetry.

Okay, young man, you are a poet, I am a lover of poetry. So much for the bait. Now for some selected bits of honesty.

She explains that she lives all alone in her tiny white room (the “white” has good connotations); but she is the first one to be kissed (good way to put it, keep it up) by the April sun. She seldom attends church. (Oh, he’s bound to find out sooner or later, so go ahead and say it.) But, alas, the flowers I make have no scent. (It’s all a fake, the song you sang to me, the song I sang to you, this meeting, the dropped key. Don’t expect too much, young man. Life isn’t like that.)

Of course, any actor will agree but argue that very little of this silent script can come through to an audience. Puccini’s music is nothing but sincere. How can any Mimi on a stage and having to sing the notes as written in tempos dictated by the conductor possibly bring any of this across?

Would it be too much to have her gaze lovingly at Rodolfo while singing one idea and turning away when the “all that glisters is not gold” idea is dominant? I leave this to future directors of “La Boheme” to consider. I have seen far too many productions that refused to depart from the love-at-first-sight staging and make Mimi into a less interesting character.