Thursday, August 29, 2013

One Verdi Opera a Day: La traviata, I vespri Siciliani, Simon Boccanegra

Renata Scotto as Elena in I Vespri Siciliani

I'm continuing to listen to one Verdi opera a day, not on consecutive days but in
order, in partial celebration of the Verdi Bicentennial. I'm also making use of Mary Jane Philips Matz's magisterial biography of the composer, along with books by Julian Budden and Francis Toye. Mostly I'm just listening for my own enjoyment, as I hope my comments reflect

Maria Callas in La Traviata
La traviata   Francesco Maria Piave, based on Dumas fils "La dame aux camellias"  Venice 1853
Inspired by the courtesan Marie DuPlessis (1824-1847)

Maria Callas, Giuseppe DiStefano, Ettore Bastianini/Carlo Maria Giulini La Scala 1955

La traviata is an easy opera to take for granted. The story had notoriety before Verdi/Piave got to it, mostly via Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse. What begins in a brittle and cynical manner becomes an exercise in sincerity that dares you to mock. Violetta may be to sopranos as Hamlet is to actors. Again, Verdi is a great tune smith

We go from hedonism to pathos to deeply moving drama

The role of Alfredo is misleading. He has less to do emotionally in the opera. The heart of the piece is the Violetta-Germont scene in Act II. But Alfredo is no easy sing. He's worth doing for the Act III scene at Flora's if for nothing else

 Don't miss the new biography of Marie DuPlessis, whose life inspired Dumas fils and Verdi 

The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanaugh



Les vepres Siciliennes   Eugene Scribe/Charles Duveyrier  Paris 1855

Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Gregory Kunde, Dario Solari, Orlin Anastassov/Gianluigi Gelmetti Naples 2011

I vespri Siciliani  Ettore Ciami  Perugia 1855

Renata Scotto, Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, Paul Plishka/James Levine
Metropolitan Opera November 4, 1974

These are two different operas with the same music and plot. Verdi wrote a French opera, to a French text for the Paris Opera.

In Verdi's day opera was sung in the language of the audience, thus necessitating an Italian translation, which
Salle Le Pelletier, Paris c. 1850
the composer hated.  Most of know I vespri Siciliani better than Les vepres Sicilienne. I don't know the French text very well. Even so I can tell the words fit the music perfectly. The French language gives this opera dignity the Italian lacks, the latter becoming more of a pot boiler. I would love to see a staged French language production of Verdi's original. I imagine Vepres/Vespri is a bitch to cast. The duets for Henri/Montfort and Henri/Helene are highlights for me. But my favorite moment in this opera is at the very beginning. The Duchess Helene demands her fellow Sicilians rise up against the French: Some of what I mean is at 4:00. But this is a wonderful clip surrounding the Verpres production from Naples cited above


Verdi knew that the Italian Vespri would run afoul of the censors. The Italian libretto was refashioned and called Giovanna di Guzman.  Whatever.
For I vespri Siciliani, here's a recent production from Verdi's own Parma:

 BTW: Verdi was also working on the French edition of Il trovatore--Le trouvere

Tito Gobbi as Simon Boccanegra

Simon Boccanegra   Francesco Maria Piave   Venice 1857  Music revised with new text by Arrigo Boito Milan 1881

 Tito Gobbi, Giorgio Tozzi, Leyla Gencer, Giuseppe Zampieri, Rolando PaneraiGianandrea Gavazzeni  Vienna Opera Orch and Chorus at the Salzburg Festival August 9, 1961

Sometimes I think this opera gets lost between Traviata and the impending, Ballo, Forza and Don Carlo. I've never paid it enough attention. The tenor and soprano take a back seat to the baritone and bass. Well, I'm here to tell ya, this is one powerful opera. If you don't know, invest 2 hours in a listen. Verdi's music captures both the image of the sea and the grandeur of the Venice of the Doges. There are moments of great intimacy, notably the soft 'Figlia' sung by SB after meeting his adult daughter. The Council Chamber Scene, added in 1881 (I don't know the 1857 version, as far as I know it is rarely performed) I've seen Simon Boccanegra and it plays like the grand opera it is. The last thirty seconds are especially thrilling. Boccanegra dies of poison. The crowd outside is calling for him. Fiesco says Greet Gabriele Adorno, your new Doge. No! Boccanegra! He is dead. Pray for his immortal soul". "

Verdi was apparently discouraged and annoyed with thew opera's failure in 1857. He had written it off until Boito convinced  the composer to accept the revisions, giving us the opera as performed today. Don't miss Simon Boccanegra

Monday, August 19, 2013

One Verdi Opera a day: Stiffelio, Rigoletto, Il trovatore

Now it gets intense. The challenge is to say something new about Rigoletto and Trovatore. The hits just keep on coming.

But  Stiffelio is not well known. There's a story to be told:
If you write an opera called Stiffelio,  you'd better be sure it's a good opera.
Giuseppe Verdi wrote a three act tragedy based on the play Stiffelius back in 1850. The story is  the tale of a Protestant pastor who forgives his wife her adultery. There is a very effective closing scene, as Stiffelio preaches the gospel of the woman taken in adultery and proclaims that Christ pardoned her. "Perdonate! Perdonate!" he cries as his wife makes her way toward him down the church aisle.  Handled right,  this is a simple and moving scene.

 Stiffelio has been called Verdi's forgotten opera. Until very recently it was  never performed. The 1850 premiere was ruined by the Austrian censors active in Trieste. They demanded so many changes (a minister with a cheating wife, indeed!) that Verdi lost interest and moved on.

Verdi's estate at Sant'Agata, near Milan

I'm here to tell you however, that Stiffelio is not forgotten,  silly title and all. This writer sang in the chorus of the American staged premiere. Sarah Caldwell directed and conducted Stiffelio with her Opera Co. of Boston in 1976. Sarah was one of those people who could make a cheese souffle out of peanut butter, graham crackers and a turnip. She never paid the bills. Her theater was a movie house in a bad part of Boston. Porno on Tuesday, Opera on Wednesday. The dress rooms were the stinking back alley. Never mind.

Such was Sarah's creativity that she attracted big name singers. Stiffelio was to star the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers. He was still at the height of his powers in 1976. Soprano Anna Moffo would sing Lina. In 1976 she remained the most beautiful and glamorous figure in opera. She had lost her voice at least five years earlier, due to over work and poor training. Stiffelio was meant to be her big comeback.

Jon Vickers never came to Boston. He sent word from his estate in the Bahamas that having studied the score he was convinced the part was too difficult.  No Vickers, no opera. NOBODY sang this opera in 1976. Moffo arrived and everybody else began  to rehearse without the title character. She was on every talk show and this production had enormous pre-publicity.

Long story short. Glamorous and diva like in public, Anna Moffo was warm and kind and professional in rehearsal. It was clear to all of us she was still in vocal difficulty. Remember there was no leading man. Eventually, Sarah forced the role on a young tenor and he valiantly went on. He did himself nor the audience any favors, poor guy. Miss Moffo sang one performance. Her voice quit completely mid way of performance 2. A chorister sang from the wings. Moffo went home to Fifth Avenue and RCA, and Stiffelio limped on the understudies.

With all of that, it was clear this was a wonderful opera. It's hard to cast. Still unfamiliar, it demands accomplished singers-and they are expensive and you can't bounce their cheeks as Sarah did to the rest of us. Nevertheless it was a good-looking, well costumed production. The media who came for Moffo stayed for Verdi. Bad luck with casting also plagued Verdi himself but in 1976 it was okay for a pastor to have  cheating wife onstage.

The Opera Co. of Boston closed its doors in 1991. Stiffelio arrived at the Metropolitan in 1993. I remember being annoyed that all the press coverage ignored the 1976 Boston production. Phooey. We got there first.

Rigoletto  Venice 1851
Francesco Maria Piave, after Hugo's Le roi s'amuse

Tito Gobbi, Maria Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano. La Scala/Tullio Serafin
The censorship that crippled the inital run of Stiffelio wreaked havoc with Rigoletto. Victor Hugo was anathema to conservatives. Regicide on stage? Impossible. If the King (Duke of Mantua) has to live he'd better have terrific tunes:

Rigoletto endears itself to the public for the tenor's tunes. The scenes with Gilda and her father are gorgeous and heartbreaking. And the jester himself is a glorious acting role. And what a sing!

Verdi knew what he had. He didn't let a note of this score out of his sight until after the first perforamnce. He eknew every organ grinder in Venice would take up thersr melodies. Where ios there such a balance of tunes and true drama. The beautiful father-daughter dynamic is simple. That it is memorable here is due to Verdi's passion.

Il trovatore Rome 1853 

Salvatore Cammarano and Leone Emmanuelle Bardare after El Trobabor by Guiterrez

Jussi Bjorling, Zinka Milanov, Fedora Barbieri, Leonard Warren/Renato Cellini

 Get in there and fight! Get in there and sing! The Marx brothers made fun of Il trovatore and do many others. It is a stand up and sing (or get in there and fight) opera. You need superlative voices. If the singers aren't well matched the balance can annihilate those lest....sonorous. In Trovatore,  the forward momentum Verdi first demonstrated in Nabucco is perfected. This is a swift moving show. One of the gems for me is the offstage nun's chorus in Act 2 sc. 2. The set up toward the battle between Manrico and di Luna and Leonora's rescue ("Donna, mi segui!") is thrilling.
Azucena becomes the pivotal character. A woman who murdered a child and becomes a craezd, pathetic figure has the most dramatic music.

The monks chanting the Miserere, Manrico sings from his prison and Leonora, hearing all this...di te scordarmi!


Monday, August 12, 2013

One Verdi Opera a Day: Il corsaro, La battaglia di Legnano, Luisa Miller

There is nothing at all boring about this essay of the Verdi operas. I am listening to one, complete, no interruptions each day. Herewith just a few gut reaction comments. so far, I Lombardi, I due Foscari and Alzira have been exciting surprises. Giovanna d'Arco and Un giorno di regno not so much.

Giuseppina Strepponi, Verdi's wife after 1859
Il corsaro    libretto Francesco Maria Piave after Lord Byron     Trieste  1848

Carlo Bergonzi, Darah Reese/David LAwton Stony Brook NY 1981

Is this the second least known Verdi opera after Alzira? I liked Alzira. I like Il corsaro, too. It's another Il corsaro. It's an opera worth doing if you have a strong tenor.
Lord Byron hyper romantic impossible situation with a Pasha, two women, a harem and a tenor pirate. This is the tenor's opera, though each soprano has a fine aria. The finale is quite beautiful, as Medora dies after poisoning herself. The love music isn't memorable. Verdi was still in his noisy more-is-better period-But there's lots of stirring music. Forget the story. Michael Fabiano would be great in

La battaglia di Legnano   libretto Salvatore Cammarano after Joseph Mery   Rome 1849

Jose Carerras, Katia Riciarelli, Matteo Manuguerra/Lamberto Gardelli

Verdi had been chided for no longer turning out his patriotic operas. Perhaps La battaglia was his response. The political struggles here are clothed in the occupation of Milan by a German emperor. Verdi achievers a synthesis here of political rabble rousing and heart. This is a terrific opera, worthy of revival. The finale, with the death of Arrigo on the steps of the Milan cathedral, is a melodramatic treat. I'd like to see this done on stage-Michael Fabiano, Angela Meade, Rene Pape, --and for the big Verdi baritone Rolando---??? well, only Delavan comes to immediate mind.

Luisa Miller  libretto Salvatore Cammarano after Schiller's Kabale und Liebe   Naples 1849

Montserrat Caballe, Luciano Pavarotti, Piero Cappuccilli/Gianandrea Gavazzeni La Scala 1976

It was Anna Moffo's photo on the cover of her recording of Luisa that got me to listen to this opera forty years ago. I've always enjoyed it. We get the first deeply moving father-daughter scenes, especially in Luisa's last act. The tenor had a great extended scene. If the situations are not quite believable well, that's opera folks. Two good bass roles, with Count Walther given some lovely music in Act I. Likewise the Act I finale on paper has a keystone cops quality saved by dramatic music. This is an opera for a Trovatore like cast of soprano, tenor and baritone. If Verdi were alive today he'd cast Zajik or Blythe as Frederica.

Friday, August 02, 2013

One Verdi Opera a Day: Macbeth, I Masnadieri, Jerusalem

Verdi circa 1848
Jenny Lind

I'm listening to one Verdi opera a day in honor of his bicentennial.
My comments are just a bit of 'gut reaction'
This continues to be a wonderful journey!
Listening to and reading about these works beats any vitamins for me, although chocolate could run anything a close race.

Macbeth  1847 Florence   revised 1865 Paris
Francesco Maria Piave

Peter Glossop, Rita Hunter, Joh Tomlinson, Kenneth Collins/John Matheson BBC Broadcast   1847 version

Piero Cappucilli, Shirley Verrett, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Franco Tagliavini/Claudio Abbado  La Scala 1976      1865 version

"He is the poet I revere above all others" wrote Verdi about Shakespeare. The composer knew the plays inMacbeth needs a formidable conductor, who is not tempted to play the witches for comedy. I'm riveted  by the Act 1 duet, 'Fatal mia donna!' and by the Brindisi in Act II...the entire scene with the vision of Banquo's Ghost. Once past Act 1, Macbeth 's grows in power. The third act vision scene and duet for the Macbeths, and the sleepwalking scene are first class Verdi.
translations, first made available in 1838.

Emmanuele Muzio
I masnadieri  1848  London
Andrea Maffei

Carlo Bergonzi, Montserrat Caballe, Piero Cappucilli, Ruggero Raimondi/Lambero Gardelli

Based on Schiller's Die Rauber , written for London and soprano Jenny Lind. Ernani.  No problem with that certainly, but we are absent any convincing love music. My least favorite Verdi thus far. But I'd rather sit through my least favorite Verdi than the best of many another composer.
Her voice according toVerdi's amanuensis Emmanuele Muzio, was "like tinsel, with great coloratura, appropriate to an earlier time but not to 1848." The plot is inane, and that's saying something. I find most of the music undistinguished. The baritone's vengeance scene in Act  1 sounds like G and S. The Act IV duet between Carlo and his father is wonderful. Amalia does not become the lead in spite of Jenny-it's another baritone opera, likeErnani. No problem there but it leaves Jerusalem without love music-and characters who seem irrelevant

Jersualem   1847 Paris  in French
Alphonse Royer, Gustave Vaez

Marina Mescheriakova, Marcello Giordani, Roberto Scandiuzzi/Fabio Luisi  Geneva

I love I Lombardi. Jersualem is a French language revision done for Paris. The Paris Opera had money, stagecraft, orchestra, set designers and an audience demanding huge spectacles with lots of pretty girls. Verdi was plodded by Ricordi to get on board. Jersualem is dramatically tighter and musically more polite. The French language gives the score an elegance lacking in  I Lombardi. I think Jersualem  is still considered a  revision rather than a separate opera. It plays faster,  and I enjoyed it.