Archive for the ‘Opera’ Category

Hello fellow opera enthusiasts!

I see there are but two of us.
Let me start again: HELLO fellow humans!
In my tireless endeavours to entertain you (and, I admit, myself) I have put together a delightful little animation explaining the charms of Il Trovatore, here. This VERY FAMOUS opera has never been on my personal top ten list, but having studied it enough to make this 3 minute show, I can’t help but admire the very beautiful music.
Note that as the opera is 2 and a half HOURS LONG, I have saved you 2 hours and 27 minutes of your precious time! So go ahead and watch some cute kitten videos!

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The Royal Opera offers streamed shows, at a VERY good price: $3.43. Here in the states the ticket for a streamed event is often as much as $35! So I snapped up a ticket for the 2015 Marriage of Figaro–and was charmed with it.
Long long ago, I took a course in opera at Cornell, and Marriage of Figaro was the first one we studied. It is a long complicated opera, with many many characters, and a very silly plot. One simply stunning plot point: Figaro is being sued for an unpaid loan, the penalty for which is marrying the woman who lent him the money.
But GUESS WHAT! It turns out that she is HIS MOTHER!
So they won’t get married. She marries the lawyer instead–who it turns out is HIS FATHER.
But WAIT, there’s so much more!
There is the Count, longing to pinch every female bottom in sight, and there is the page Cherubino–always sung by a woman–hiding in the closets of various lovely ladies, the Count seeking him in a perpetual jealous rage. And the sad Countess, watching her husband misbehave.
As the opera starts, Figaro is admiring the new room the Count has allotted to him and his soon-to-be-wife Susanna–close by the Count’s room, so handy in case the Count needs him!
So handy in case the Count wishes to SEDUCE SUSANNA, Figaro’s soon-to-be-wife points out.
Jealousy, anger!
And on it goes until the Count, completely undone and shamed, kneels before his wife and begs her forgiveness–“Contessa Perdono“–one of opera’s most moving moments.
This production starred tall dark and handsome Erwin Schrott as Figaro; he entertained us all with his antic gestures and silly business–and his absolutely beautiful voice.

And there was a lovely moment at the very beginning, as the orchestra launches into the overture–the curtain rises, and a group of servants hasten in, and start opening the tall shutters–and lo! light streams in! I sighed in delight!

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Saturday Afternoon Activities

It turns out there is ONE MORE STEP after you successfully change a battery in your Fios box–you must now RECYCLE this item: a Lead Acid Battery is a very dangerous item which should never be casually discarded! THAT would be the action of a RAPSCALLION.
However, finding where to responsibly discard this item took some time to figure out–some shops accept them.
NOT the one I went to last week, however.
But today I found one, an auto store over in DC. My phone blithely told me to turn left, turn right–but I knew the way. It lies along the road to the gracious cemetery where my beloved lies buried, a place I visit regularly.
The grief that normally keeps me company on this road was kept at bay by the Saturday opera, a 1956 Lucia di Lammermoor–with la divina Maria Callas. I was taken aback by the beauty of the music. Maria and her tenor both sang with exquisite sweetness, and the audience applauded wildly.
The opera has a dire plot–both Lucia and the tenor die–but first she goes completely K-K-KRAZY and kills the bridegroom her vile brother has foisted on her in the place of her lover. Ensues the Mad Scene, and she sings the beautiful aria, “Spargi d’amaro pianto,”in her blood soaked wedding gown! This always brings the house down. It is accompanied by a glass harmonica, an instrument apparently invented by Ben Franklin.

She politely waited until I had dropped off the battery to commence on the heart breaking lyrical masterpiece, and then sang me all the way back to Bethesda.

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La commedia è finita

Sometimes popular culture is too wild, too frantic–too filled with sound and fury signifying nothing.
Sometimes, one needs the engrossing entertainment that only antique tradition can offer.
So there I was, watching Cav and Pag–Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, to those unfamiliar with the wonderful world of opera–as performed by the Royal Opera of a couple years ago. Both are stories of violent jealousy and its terrible punishment. YES, sound and fury, but significant sound and fury.
Cav is set in Sicily, and in the final scene between the two furious men, Turiddu BITES Alfio’s ear, which we are told is a Sicilian custom indicating that the fight will be to the death. And it is, and the story ends with Turiddu lying in a welter of blood while the grieving villagers cluster around, and his loving mother weeps. She was played by a lady who bore an odd resemblance to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Perhaps it was just the bun and the spectacles.
Pagliacci is famous as the clown who laughs while weeping inside.

I saw a version once where he sings his famous aria looking intently into a make up mirror surrounded by little lights, only the mirror was empty, and he sang directly to us–heart stopping, rather.
His wife Nedda is cheating on him, his heart is breaking–and the story plays out during the show within the show, with Columbine (=Nedda) and Harlequin playing their parts to the merry laughter of the audience, while Pagliacco becomes more and more wild. It does not end well: there he stands on the stage in the little town, surrounded by ruin.
FINE shows, both of them.

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Tales of Hoffman

Designers LOVE this wonderful opera-SUCH scope it offers for deliriously AB FAB costumes and sets.
AND, by the way, the music is completely lovely.
I have just watched the Royal Opera performance of it, with bad boy Vittorio Grigolo as Hoffman–such a voice! Owing to an unfortunate failure to comport himself properly, this honey voiced tenor has been banned from the world’s stages. Of course one laments his lack of propriety, but this punishment falls on us as much as the sinner himself. He has the voice of an angel, is handsome, slim, young. Sigh. In the bad old days, pinching chorus girls was fairly standard behavior. Not any more.
The opera starts with everybody in a bar drinking riotously–welcoming Hoffman in and insisting that he sing them a song, which he does. And then–I always love this bit!– he loudly announces “Peuh! Cette bière est détestable! Allumons le punch! Grisons nous! Et que les plus fous roulent sous la table!*” Followed by a wonderful rollicking brouhaha, everybody drinking and carrying on the way we would all like to do these days but can’t because of the horrid virus. Then Hoffman tells them the story of his 3 loves, which is the story of the opera: Olympia, the ridiculous doll; Giulietta, the sumptuous courtesan, and Antonia, the virtuous but dying singer.

Each act has a simply wonderful song–Olympia performs her party piece, Les oiseaux dans la charmille, watched by her proud creator Coppelius (a ballet was made of this story). And then there is the gorgeous barcarolle from the Venice act–“Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour, souris à nos ivresses.**” The third act has the scene that always thrills me, when Dr. Miracle displays his bottles of deadly medicine to Antonia’s horrified father–Hoffman hiding in the corner–and the three men sing a stunning trio, a pale echo of which I have uploaded here. The doctor AND the three other villains were all played by baritone Thomas Hampson, with such verve and delight! As the doctor he was particularly charming, with his mane of gray hair and his black painted fingernails. He so enjoys his vile wickedness!

In the end, Hoffman has lost all his three loves–BUT, he has his lovely muse, who has steadfastly remained with him throughout all his misfortunes. So that’s all right, you see.
*POOH, this beer stinks–let’s light the punch! Let’s get drunk! And may the craziest of us roll under the table!
**Beautiful night, oh night of love, smile on our drunkenness..

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I have written about Billy Budd before, here–the brilliant opera by Benjamin Britten on the story by Melville; the libretto written by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier. Because I listened to it so obsessively in my youth, it is written into my brain. I love this opera.
Marquee Arts TV offered me a version of it, presented by the Teatro Real in Madrid, production designed by Deborah Warner.
Well, the singing is simply beautiful, the acting fine! But the design did not win my approval.
Ms. Warner has devised an enormous jungle gym, with many many ropes and ladders languidly hanging about, a bit of the stage suspended from some of them–this so that the furious mariners can madly SWING their superior officers back and forth in the last part, thus demonstrating their rage. There was some sort of large sail raised, there are hammocks.
But you know what? The lines and ropes of a real ship are exact and beautiful, which Ms. Warner’s cat’s cradle was not.
The cast is dressed in some semblance of modern naval uniforms, except for the sailors who are in t-shirts and pants–and they mostly take off their t-shirts.

Naked-Guys-R-Us! At least Billy politely puts his t-shirt back on for his interview with Captain Vere, who was movingly sung by Toby Spence–a little young for the part perhaps, but he managed very well.
In no navy on earth would a captain invite his officers in for a drink and greet them–in his bathrobe. With his naked breast much in evidence. He was in his bath earlier, shielded by a towel held by a ship’s boy when he rose from it (naked guys a theme here, as I said). Billy was sung by Jacques Imbrailo, who has a beautiful voice and a sweet face. Not as beautiful as an angel perhaps–as Billy is meant to be–but easy enough on the eyes.
But there was one part of the design that worked extremely well, and that was malevolent John Claggart, the terrible master at arms. Brindley Sherrat, a powerful baritone, sang this role, and he was excellent. Balding, bespectacled, thick-bodied.

He stands in the dark and sings, “I, John Claggart, Master-at-Arms upon the “Indomitable”, have you in my power, and I will destroy you…I will destroy you!”

And that is exactly what he does. Makes your blood run cold.

It is such a grim story, but finally, as an old man, Captain Vere is able to forgive himself, singing that he can go back in peace to that time–“years ago…centuries ago….when I, Captain Fairfax Vere, commanded the Indomitable.”
And the curtain falls.
And then rises for the cast to make their bows–and there must have been about a hundred men on the stage. Not a woman in sight, but that is the way it was in the navy in Napoleonic times. I clapped for them, sitting all alone on my couch. Well done, excellently well done, men!

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Saturday Celebration

I am pleased to report that Public Radio is keeping the sacred Saturday opera tradition even though the Met season is over. We’re partying with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, these days. But not to worry–this is the pre-covid, pre-Floyd Chicago of 3 years ago.
Today it’s Pearl Fishers, that amazingly silly and yet quite lovely show, set in an EXOTIC far away place with simple villagers prancing about and two men (=a tenor and a baritone) who are in love with the same woman–who is a PRIESTESS, by the way.

Once the guys have sung the two VERY famous arias (Au fond du temple saint and Je crois entendre encore) there’s still a lot of opera left, ending with a FIRE set by Zurga so that Nadir (sigh, yes that’s his name) can escape with the priestess. Then the simple villagers shoot Zurga. THE END.

Last week’s opera was the 2017 production of Rigoletto, one of my favorites, also quite amazingly silly and also so very lovely. It is a simply extraordinary collection of astonishing melodies and heart breaking arias, e.g. Gilda’s Caro Nome, one of opera’s most lovely tunes. The poor girl has been followed home from church by the villainous count who tells her that he is a student and poor, the lying bastard. What does she know, kept completely isolated by her father. Rigoletto is NOT a model father, though very loving of course.
I have mentioned this fine opera before, and have even rendered it into a coarse animation with dogs taking the parts.

OH MY, opera is such fun. Saturdays, I rejoice on Saturdays!

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Today’s opera is Turandot, set in mythical China of long ago. I wrote about it 3 years ago but time goes on, and here is another performance! Turandot is the daughter of the Emperor–almost a GOD to his people, and she almost a goddess. All her suitors (and they are numerous) must answer her three riddles; to fail is NOT good: a short, sharp shock from a cheap and chippy chopper on a big, black block. And we start with an unfortunate Persian prince experiencing exactly that, off stage but announced gleefully by the chorus. I must add that in another version, the executioner was played by a gigantic black exotic dancer, who strode on stage wearing earrings and not much else, and whose axe sharpening business on the huge wheel resulted in spectacular sparks, delighting us all.

So, Prince Calaf enters–and what do you know, bumps into his ancient and blind DAD (the deposed king of Tartary by the way) who happens to be visiting Peking also. What joy to be reunited, they sing! And then the fabulous beauty of Turandot is revealed–she stands on a balcony, moonlight shining on her perfect face– and Calaf is a GONER.

Against his father’s objections, he insists on entering the contest, and of course he answers the riddles correctly, and eventually wins Turandot’s cold heart. But first we have the torment and death of lovely Liu, the loyal slave girl–and also Calaf sings what is only one of the most famous tenor arias in the world, Nessun Dorma. Here is Domingo singing it.

Opera, so fabulous: a triumph of human endeavor. Yes, we can fly to the moon, and yes we can feed the teeming billions–but give a thought to the countless talented and industrious people who spent their lives putting this and other shows together, building the sets, sewing the costumes, rehearsing the chorus and the musicians, arranging the lighting, and all the rest.
And raise a glass to that genius, Giacomo Puccini!

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Madama Butterfly

Cio Cio San–like so many of her tragic sisters in opera–is silly almost to the point of imbecility. But she is only FIFTEEN for heaven’s sake. So what if she trusts that total jerk Pinkerton? So what if she can’t figure out that she would do better with Prince Yamadori? When her heart breaks ours does too.
I have just listened to the excellent 1975 version starring our dear Placido Domingo as Pinkerton (and may he recuperate from the deadly plague that has afflicted him among so many others), with Mirella Freni as Butterfly (who died last month, at 85). The Consul Sharpless–who attempts to avert the tragedy but fails completely–was sung by Robert Kerns, whose tender baritone was sweet as candy.

To hear them singing is to hear transcendent beauty, possible because these persons were not only granted the voices of angels, but also worked from childhood to train themselves to use them.

Butterfly is one of my favorite operas–so filled with fine tunes and ravishing harmonies! There are many spectacular scenes–starting with the delightful group of young women climbing the hill in Act 1, singing “Such a sky! such a sea!”–and then Butterfly’s pure voice soaring above them: “Ancora un passo” –‘one more step!’ And then they will arrive at the little house on the hill where Pinkerton awaits her. It is SIMPLY LOVELY. And then on to the wedding, the love duet, the rest of the story.
Many years ago I took a friend to Butterfly (my husband was out of town, I had an extra ticket)–she knew nothing of the opera, and moreover, had just had a baby. The scene where Butterfly gives up her child and then KILLS HERSELF left her shaken and in tears. VERY gratifying!

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The last opera Puccini wrote–in fact, he died before finishing it–was Turandot. It tells the story of the Chinese Princess whose astonishing beauty draws princes from all over the world seeking to win her hand. But she has a heart of ICE (a pre-Disney Frozen Princess): she sets them a test of 3 riddles, and if they fail. . . BEHEADED. She has a team of executioners on standby.

Beheading NOT LIMITED TO Game of Thrones (as we just discovered watching Fellini Satyricon.)

I LOVE Turandot, though I will own that the fabulous Princess of Ice is usually sung by the more shrieky (=technical opera term meaning Wagnerian) sopranos. But the music is wonderful, and if she is more than usually strident, the tenor usually makes up for it.
Also [SPOILER ALERT] one kiss from him and she is a GONER.

In fact , most people love this opera, what with the exotic fairy tale aspect and all –a chance for the designers to go absolutely nuts. And they do, they do.
Image result for turandot
As it happens, I just watched the most extraordinarily FABULOUS version of this opera–though actually, there are so many fabulous versions–staged at the Ancestral Shrine of the Forbidden City in Peking. So that at the beginning of the show when the Mandarin sings, “Popolo di Pekino! La legge è questa..” (People of Peking, this is the law) he is actually addressing Peking residents!
OK, Beijing.

The enormously huge undertaking of staging this opera in this place–the necessary army of carpenters, builders, electricians, caterers, costumers, trainers, strategic planners, not to mention the performers, and of course all the trauma of dealing with any undertaking in such a precious and historic place–is immediately evident, and frankly acknowledged in that most fascinating part of any such DVD: the “Making of the Show”. In this section, we meet Zhang Yimou, the director, Zubin Mehta, the conductor, and Chen Weiya, the choreographer. And we meet the person who has had it up to here with the bureaucracy stymieing him at every turn: “If they don’t let me put the generator in here we are WALKING!” A man I imagine as the opera counterpart to my son-in-law who does a similar job for giant rock and roll shows.

Somehow, it all worked out, and the melodies and harmonies soared into the Chinese night, and the hundreds of extras in their gorgeous costumes swayed and danced without a hitch, and Calaf won his princess in the end. It was perfectly lovely.

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