November 21, 2016

"Mrs. Spoilsport": how Rossini's second wife saved his life

"We are unwell... it is from eating too much.... the Maestro and I live to eat ... and we acquit ourselves of this duty religiously." --
Olympe Pélissier (painting by Vernet, 1830)

The Maestro? That would be Gioachino Rossini.

The writer of the amazing description above? Meet Rossini's second wife, the woman he jokingly referred to as "Mrs. Spoilsport (Madame Rabatjoie) No. 2".

Here's another quote: "I am neither proud nor gracious. I am a fat woman who is occupied from morning to evening with digesting." Wow...

In a previous post I introduced you to the composer's first wife, the glamorous opera singer Isabella Colbran. Now I'll tell you a little about Olympe Pélissier: model for paintings by Horace Vernet, courtesan whose lovers included the writer Honoré de Balzac and, by turns, Rossini's nurse, cook, lover and, ultimately, wife. You don't really know Rossini until you know the women he lived with!

Rossini's first marriage ended in a way that does not reflect much credit on either party. After Colbran's voice gave out, forcing an end to her career as a prima donna, Rossini was still traveling constantly, overseeing productions and just generally living the life of a musical celebrity. Isabella chafed at her forced retirement. She was discouraged at being virtually abandoned to live with her husband's father, Giuseppe Rossini. She was bored out of her skull, a problem leading to the downward spiral of compulsive gambling and the loss of a personal fortune. She was driven to taking private voice students in an attempt to replenish her funds. For his part, Rossini left her behind when he departed for Paris in 1830; he would not see her again for four years. He was seven years younger than Colbran, her gambling disgusted him, and he had no trouble finding available women to satisfy his prodigious sexual appetite.

That appetite contributed to a sorry state of declining physical and emotional health. It seems apparent that Rossini suffered from what would be called bi-polar disorder today. The writer Antonio Zanolini described the composer's mood swings as fluctuating violently from upbeat and joking to bitterness and exhausted despair. In addition, he was beset with chronic ailments requiring the long-term use of a catheter, and the application of leeches to treat hemorrhoids.

(Yeah, that's pretty gross. That's a visual image we could all do without, and a bit of irony in light of Figaro's cheerful reference to leeches in his "Largo al factotum".)

Enter Olympe in the fall of 1832. An attractive woman in her 30's, she already had a colorful history in Parisian society behind her. She was born out of wedlock to an unmarried woman. Though her mother married a certain Monsieur Pélissier (who adopted Olympe), it was assumed from the girl's childhood that she would follow her mother's "career path" with a collection of wealthy "protectors". After gaining Rossini's attention and becoming part of his circle, Olympe found herself immersed in the world of music for the first time, quickly developing a taste for Bellini and Donizetti in addition, of course, to Rossini.

Rossini found that, given his new lover's less-than-respectable backstory, awkward situations arose when introducing Olympe in elite social circles. No less a ladies' man than the pianist and composer Franz Liszt said of Mlle. Pélissier, in a letter to his mistress the Countess d'Agoult, that 'she pleases me". The Countess, however, was not impressed. Rossini had Olympe act as hostess at the musical soirees he presented in Milan during the late 1830's, but d'Agoult said that women of standing in polite society stayed away from them.

Rossini and Pélissier lived together as man and wife without being married as long as Isabella lived on in retirement. When Rossini received news in 1845 that Colbran was on her death-bed, he and Olympe traveled to her villa at Castenaso to pay respects. Olympe waited in an ante-room while Rossini spent a few final minutes with his first wife, saying the things that needed to be said.

Ten months later, Olympe and Rossini entered into matrimony, a happy event to be followed by dark days of misery. Giaochino Rossini spent the next several years in near-fatal physical and mental health, often on the brink of collapse. During the late forties and early fifties, Herbert Weinstock (whose excellent biography Rossini is the source of the biographical details here) notes that the composer spent up to eight months of each year combating his weakened state with ineffective cures. There were prolonged periods in which he reported that, due to what he termed "hydrophobia", food had lost all flavor; at times, he sobbed uncontrollably; he told a friend of his "constantly increasing mental impotence"; he was often confined to bed.

Through it all, on good days when he felt up to socializing, and on bad days when he could barely hang on, Olympe Pélissier Rossini was as devoted and caring as a wife could be. He likely owed his life to her.

Rossini appears to have touched bottom in 1855. He reported to a Signor Mordani that he had been unable to sleep for more that five minutes at a time for over a year. "Death is better than living this way", he concluded.

Given all this, opera-lovers shouldn't wonder at Rossini's having retired from composition so early in life. The reality of his frailty belies the common perception that his retirement was an uninterrupted period marked by witty banter, rich food and the Good Life. Rossini also intimated to a few people in his circle that the changing nature of musical style left him feeling alienated and disenfranchised, as though he had outlived his time artistically. He complained to colleagues of the increasingly "learned" quality in Italian music. He was repelled by the mid-century trend toward violent and bloody subjects such as Verdi's Il Trovatore. It's also true that he had no need to make a living at composition; his fortune was large and secure, managed by trusted financiers.

But in time, Olympe's care proved effective. In 1856 the clouds of illness and depression began to lift. By the following year, Rossini returned to writing music, though certainly with no intention of another opera. He wrote a piano prelude and six songs for voice and piano, the collection called Musique Anodine. The dedication is especially touching:

I offer these modest songs to my dear wife Olympe as a simple testimonial of gratitude for the affectionate, intelligent care of which she was prodigal during my overlong and terrible illness. (April 15, 1857)

As life with Olympe settled into something more stable in Paris, more music came, including the famous Petit Messe Solennelle in 1864. Following Rossini's death in 1868, Olympe remained in their Paris residence for another decade until her death at age 81.

Isabella Colbran may have been his Muse for a short while, but Olympe Pélissier was his protector and companion; her devotion saw him through years of crisis. She deserves the thanks of those of us who love her husband's music.

November 8, 2016

Diagetic music in Barber of Seville and other operas

I just learned a new music term, and I have The Godfather to thank for it. And it's a term that is very useful in opera as well as film!
Opera Appreciation via The Godfather

I was watching Francis Ford Coppola's Mafia epic this afternoon. As always, I marveled at the soundtrack heard in the climactic scene of the baptism; the scene in which Michael Corleone stands as godfather to his sister Connie's baby while, simultaneously, hit men carry out executions of rival crime-family heads in a bloody montage.

Music plays a key role in this masterfully conceived and (no pun intended) executed section. We are in the sanctuary of an immense cathedral somewhere in the outskirts of New York. As a priest intones the baptism ritual in Latin, organ music sets the scene. (It happens to be, for the most part, Bach's Passacaglia & Fugue in C Minor.) The music continues without interruption even when the church scene is intercut with shots of mayhem and murder. That's helpful to the audience, as it clarifies that the executions are happening at the same moment as the church service. It provides a bit of order to the chaos. The music also darkens and becomes more chromatic as the scope of Michael's revenge is revealed. This is GREAT filmmaking.

The important thing to observe here is that the underscoring is (here's the fancy new term) diegetic. That is to say, the music is meant to be understood as occurring naturally in the fictional world of the drama, rather than traditional composed underscoring. We're in a church, a service is in progress, so naturally, an organist is providing music. No fancy leit-motifs; just the actual sounds the characters themselves would be hearing.  (Note: I encountered the term on a website called The Cine' Files.)

Another typical example of diagetic music from the world of cinema would be the the piano music played in saloons in countless Westerns.

Bottom line: diagetic music means that the characters themselves hear the music. Got the concept? I knew you would - you're quick like that! So now that we're all glorying in the acquisition of a cool vocabulary word, let's see how it works in opera.

It gets tricky in this context since, obviously, operas contain music throughout; the scoring is continuous other than in exceptions such as operetta and opera comique. Nevertheless, diagetic music is more common than you might realize unless you stop and think about it.

I've stopped and thought about it. Rossini's Barber of Seville (Virginia Opera's current production) employs it no less than three times. Let's examine those, and then (just for fun) compile a list of other great diagetic moments in opera history. From the Barber:

  • "Ecco ridente" This is Almaviva's first serenade to Rosina at the top of Act 1. Expanding on Beaumarchais, the Count has sprung for a small orchestra to accompany him. As he warbles his coloratura, the onstage banda mimes the bowing and tooting of strings and winds actually being produced in the orchestra pit below. But the point is: this is an opera character, and while we expect that everyone in an opera will sing, the Count knows he is singing, as opposed to, say, carrying on a conversation with someone in which only the audience perceives that he's singing.
  • "Se il mio nome" A second song; a second serenade. Extra points to the artist playing the Count if he can manage to play the guitar will enough to provide his own accompaniment.
  • Rosina's lesson scene. In Act 2, the Count arrives at Bartolo's home in disguise as Alonso, Rosina's "substitute voice tutor". So when she sings a solo, it's another moment of diagetic music. The Count sits at a spinet, making a show of playing along with her. Odd, since we in the audience hear an orchestra, not a piano, but let it pass... let it pass...In contrast, when Rosina sang "Una voce poco fa" in Act 1, she was not performing music, she was simply delivering a soliloquy about her interest in "Lindoro".
Here are some other moments we can all now take pride in (yes, ostentatiously) classifying as diagetic:

TOSCA. In Act 2, Baron Scarpia is interrogating Tosca's lover Cavaradossi when suddenly he is distracted by vocal music coming through the open window of his quarters at the Palazzo Farnese. It's Tosca herself, making a living as a celebrated soprano. The music consists of a cantata with chorus she's performing that evening. Scarpia closes the window and resumes his cross-examination.

DIE FLEDERMAUS 1 No surprise that diagetic music would occur throughout Act 2 - after all, it's a party. But the outstanding example is Rosalinde's Czardas, the vocal equivalent of a Hungarian Rhapsody complete with slow lassan and lively friska. The supposed "Hungarian Countess" is graciously performing for Orlovsky's guests.

DIE FLEDERMAUS 2 In the final act, Adele, under the impression that the jailer Frank the "Chevalier Chagrin", a French theatrical impressario, auditions for him with the hope that he will advance her ambitions in the theater. 

DON GIOVANNI 1 Serenades are the most obvious scenario in which to insert diagetic music into an opera, though not the only way. In Act 2, Giovanni sings "Deh vieni alla finestra" to Donna Elvira's chambermaid.

DON GIOVANNI 2 A particularly brilliant example of diagetic music that is purely instrumental occurs in the ballroom scene concluding Act 1. With astonishing contrapuntal dexterity, Mozart employs no fewer than three onstage bands, each representing the different social classes present at the Don's palace. Characters sing while the dance music is being played, but their singing is not diagetic; they are simply interacting in the normal manner of opera music. In this case, it's the closest example to the Godfather baptism scene; a diagetic passage of instrumental music underscoring dialogue.

DON GIOVANNI 3 I'm pretty sure Mozart really enjoyed putting together the dinner music heard in the opera's final scene as Giovanni dines alone, moments before being interrupted by Elvira and then a certain ghostly statue. There are plenty of in-jokes here, ending with the band playing a tune from The Marriage of Figaro, prompting Leporello to make a snide remark.

Dinner music in an opera - I guess, technically, that would be "digestively diagetic"?

Yeah, that was pretty lame...

November 3, 2016

The woman who deprived the world of more Barber of Sevilles.

...or would that more correctly be "Barbers of Seville"? I'm not sure. This isn't a grammar blog, okay?
Isabella Rossini nee Colbran (1785-1865)

In my last post, I briefly mentioned Beethoven's admiration for The Barber of Seville. The young Rossini went to visit the famous German composer in 1822 (a year, as we shall see, that was important to Rossini in other ways). In 1860, he described the meeting to Richard Wagner, who also held Rossini in high esteem, as incongrous as that may strike us now. Assuming that Rossini's account of his conversation with Beethoven was accurate all those decades later, this was what the master had to say (my source for this translation is Herbert Weinstock's excellent biography of Rossini):

"Ah, Rossini, you are the composer of Il Barbiere di Siviglia? I congratulate you; it is an excellent opera buffa. I read it with pleasure (Beethoven was stone deaf by this time), and it delights me. It will be played as long as Italian opera exists. Never try to do anything but opera buffa; wanting to succeed in another genre would be trying to force your destiny."

The composer of Fidelio went on to throw shade on Rossini's dramatic works, including Otello and Tancredi. The conversation ended shortly after; owing to the cumbersome problem of Rossini's writing everything he wanted to say in Beethoven's conversation books. As the Italian made his way to the door of Beethoven's apartment, there was one final admonition:

"Above all, make a lot of Barbers."

And yet, in 1822 Rossini was in the middle of a twelve-year stretch during which he ignored comedies and wrote only dramas. This period began immediately after Barber of Seville in 1816 and lasted until the composition of Le Comte Ory in 1828. The closest he came to a comedy was Il Viaggio a Reims, called a "dramma giocoso"; it was a monumental flop.

What happened? A woman happened. And what a woman she was!

Before there was "Bennifer" (Affleck + Lopez) or "Brangelina" (Pitt + Jolie), there was "Gioachabella". Now, I wouldn't say that Gioachino Rossini and Isabella Colbran were history's first celebrity couple - "Marcopatra" down in Egypt pre-dated them by several centuries - but the story of their affair and short-lived marriage did provide a template of sorts for modern tabloid lovers: an affair, a wedding, and a separation.

And it's Colbran who directly altered the course, albeit temporarily, of Rossini's career. It's Colbran who caused her lover-turned-husband to turn away from sparkling comedies. Two centuries later, their story still smolders with the faint smoky residue of notoriety, super-stardom, a gambling addiction and ultimate dysfunction.

Isabella Colbran was a native of Madrid. By age 20 she was not only rocketing to international stardom as a soprano sfogata (an archaic term for a mezzo-soprano capable of singing the E or even F above high C), she was a figure of glamour as well; a 19th-century "it girl". The writer Stendhal described her with frank admiration:

"She was a beauty of the most imposing sort: with large features that are superb on the stage, magnificent stature, blazing eyes..., a forest of the most beautiful jet-black hair and ... an instinct for tragedy. 

If this description reminds opera buffs of Maria Callas at the height of her career, I get that. She must have been something.

She could sing, too! In 1807, when Colbran was just 22 years old, a critic wrote this of her abilities:

"The organ of her voice is truly an enchantment for smoothness, for strength, and for prodigious extension of tones: from the bass G to the high E - that is, for almost three octaves - it makes itself heard in a progression always even in mellowness and energy." 

She was also known for an astounding command of coloratura: rapid runs, trills and leaps were tossed off with spectacular effect.This Spanish bundle of talent also composed a bit, writing four collections of songs for voice and piano.
At the start of her career she came under the wing of Domenico Barbaja, an influential opera impresario. It's widely assumed that she was his mistress as well. So Rossini's first relationship with her was professional: the San Carlo opera commissioned him to write a historical drama as a showcase vehicle for Colbran. This was Elisabeth, Queen of England, which debuted in October, 1815 - just four months before Barber.

Rossini put a lot of care into Elisabeth, a shamelessly fictional account of Queen Elizabetrh's love life. He dispensed with the custom of secco recitativo, the type of sung dialogue accompanied by keyboard, although the device was to remain in Barber. Even more notably, the composer attempted to put the kaibosh on the kind of distortions resulting from singers and their out-of-control "improvised" ornamentations. Rossini carefully notated every roulade, leap and trill, expecting vocalists to adhere to his intentions.

The result was a spectacular, giddy, enthusiastic success. Colbran's celebrity reached new heights and southern Italy warmed to Rossini as never before. (NOTE: interestingly, one of Elizabeth's arias in the first act was "recycled" by the composer as the second theme in Rosina's "Barber" aria "Una voce poco fa". Rossini was an inveterate "recycler" of his own material.)

Is it any wonder that the 24-year old Rossini fell hard for the beautiful diva, who was seven years older? She clearly became his lover, a reality that appears not to have caused hard feelings with Signor Barbaja, who arranged for several new works by Rossini.

A series of Colbran vehicles ensued in quick succession, and NONE of them were comedies; Colbran was less Carol Burnett and more Cate Blanchett on stage. Armida (1817) was followed by Moses in Egypt (1818), Ricciardo and Zoraide (1818), Hermione (1818), The Lady of the Lake (1819) Mehmed II (1820), Zelmira (1822), and Semiramide (1823).

Interspersed among these Colbran-centric operas were a few works not involving her but, oddly, all of these were dramas. Rossini was to give the world only one more comedy before his abrupt and mysterious retirement at age 37: Count Ory (1828). If Beethoven was disappointed, he never expressed it for posterity.

Composer and diva were a serious couple by 1820, their committment out in the open. When Colbran's father passed away in the spring of 1820, Rossini secretly arranged for an elaborate sculpture to be created as a monument in his memory. He requested that it depict Isabella weeping at the graveside and a musician "chanting his glories". This artwork was a surprise for his lover.

It was inevitable that a marriage would take place. Gioachino and Isabella were wed shortly after the last performance of Zelmira on March 16, 1822. The opera world being then what it always has been and remains today, the ink was hardly dry on the marriage contract before gossips began dishing dirt on the famous couple. People said that this was no marriage, it was a business deal. It's true that the union increased Rossini's wealth considerably, with a dowry worth six figures in today's economy
 as well as real estate, villas and other assets. Cruel jokes were made about Colbran, including lengthy lists of former lovers, and her "advanced age"; though she was just 37, estimates went as high as 50; obviously, she was a viewed as a 19th-century "cougar", as we would put it these days.

The marriage lasted about eight years before a permanent separation. What went wrong? The same stresses that always afflict professional couples working in the arts: too much time away from each other. With Rossini constantly on the road supervising operas, they grew apart. As for Colbran, her career ground to a halt as her once-splendid voice gave way to the wear and tear of too much virtuosic singing in too short a time. Her vocal estate severly degraded, she could no longer appear in public. She distracted herself by a serioius gambling problem; a prior pastime was now a compulsion.

Soon, Rossini was to forego public life as well, retreating to a lavish apartment in Paris to live out his days as a divorce survivor, gourmand and lively commentator on the arts scene.

Here's the thing: of the operas that followed The Barber of Seville, none have approached Figaro's story in popularity or status in the standard international repertoire. True, Armida, The Lady of the Lake and especially Semiramide have had their champions in revivals, and Rossini's final work, the gargantual epic William Tell is currently being done at the Metropolitan Opera.

But on balance, the "Colbran factor" steered Gioachino Rossini from the area in which his genius (most would agree) shone most brightly: the farce and hilarity of comic opera.

The lesson here? Perhaps it's that when Beethoven tells you what kind of talent you have in music... should listen.

October 26, 2016

Rossini's "Barber": the greatest remake in entertainment history

Big news, Faithful Readers! A major Hollywood studio has announced a forthcoming remake of Gone With The Wind! Aren't you excited? Jennifer Aniston will take on the role of Scarlett, with Keanu Reeves as Rhett Butler. This'll be GREAT!
Giovanni Paisiello (1732-1799)

Okay, just kidding.

But actually, this past summer did feature two remakes of classic movies that turned out not to do so well at the box office. There was a new version of Ben Hur. I looked it up on and I swear to you, I literally had never heard of any of the actors. Another flop: the reinvented Ghost Busters with a female crew. It cost $140 million to make, and to date made just $70 million.

One of my favorite screwball comedies ever is 1979's The In-Laws, with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. ("Serpentine, Shel, serpentine!!") A remake came out in 2003 with a promising cast: Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks. But it was a dud, totally missing the inspired silliness and chemistry of Arkin and Falk. Yuck.

Remakes ---- WHY?

Which brings me to the topic of Rossini's Barber of Seville. It's first performance some 200 years ago was one of those fabled "flops of a masterpiece", right alongside Carmen and Madama Butterfly. To place the hissing and booing in context, it's important to understand that Rossini's comedy was a remake. What's more, the opera it sought to replace had been one of the most popular and beloved operas in the world for 34 years: the 1775 Barber of Seville by Giovanni Paisiello.

For the audience assembled for Rossini's opening night, this new Barber was an affront; they felt about it as you felt if you swallowed my opening lines about Gone With The Wind. A very long evening of hissing and catcalls conveyed their displeasure at such sacrilege. Of course, before long the remake had overwhelmed Paisiello, sending it straight to the archives of opera history.

So - is it simply that Paisiello's version was bad, and that the public finally understood that once they had Rossini's to compare it with? Not at all - the earlier opera is quite good. The music is attractive, the orchestration is fine, and let's face it: Beaumarchais's play is almost fool-proof material for a libretto.

The best way to understand how Rossini managed to surpass Paisiello in crafting the greatest remake ever created is to do a little side-by-side comparison of corresponding numbers. This is easy to do since the respective librettos are very similar. I won't bore you with going through the entirety; 3 or 4 examples should do the trick.

I. The Count's serenade
In the first scene, the Count, disguised as the student Lindoro,  serenades Rosina underneath the balcony of her boudoir, accompanying himself on a mandolin (in Paisiello) or a guitar (in Rossini). As you can hear in this recording, Paisiello's serenade "Saper bramate" is sweetly melodic, the type of ingratiating melody one might easily be humming on the way home from the theater. Well and good!

But now click here to hear Rossini's version of the same moment, "Se il mo nome saper voi bramate". The difference is clear and dramatic; it can be summed up with a single word: yearning.  Paisiello's melody, in comparison, is too generic. It could just as aptly be used for a lullaby, or a song in praise of Nature or some religious theme. Rossini's version is the obvious expression of a love-sick youth who finds the girl of his dreams tantalizingly out of reach.

But Rossini didn't stop there! In his Barber, the Count is given two serenades. Why? He realized the value of something lively and virtuosic to open the show; an opening aria that would grab the audience. So, like Emeril Lagasse "kicking it up a notch" (BAM!) Rossini added "Ecco ridente in cielo", a bravura first serenade that features breathtaking coloratura. The presence of the onstage band that accompanies him also provided the opportunity for some highly amusing farce. The musicians, who had been shushing each other, making a show of tip-toe sneaking and whispered admonitions of "Piano, pianissimo" (I always think of Elmer Fudd staring into the camera and saying "Be vewy vewy quiet"), suddenly go noo-noo-bonkers when the Count says he's ready to render payment for their services.

Rossini upped the ante.

II. Figaro's entrance aria
Paisiello brings his title character out almost immediately, following a brief solo for Almaviva. This is faithful to the Beaumarchais model. As Figaro enters, he is working on a song he's been writing; he sings a portion and then remarks that he thinks it's pretty good. For the dramatic situation being depicted, it's fine. As you can hear in this recording, the music does a good job of giving us information about this man: he's easy-going and good-natured. (NOTE: the link takes you to a complete recording; to hear Figaro's "Diammo alla noja", start at 5:45). Following this solo, there is a passage of recitative, a condensed version of expository dialogue from the play. Figaro and Almaviva recognize each other and converse for the sole purpose of telling us who they are.

However, sadly for Paisiello, Rossini gave Figaro (and the rest of the world) the greatest entrance aria in all of opera when he hit upon the inspired "Largo al factotum", here sung with panache by Hermann Prey. Among the superior aspects of this iconic show-piece is the way it renders all the expository recitative mostly unnecessary; Figaro introduces himself to us! The brilliance, energy, bravura (there's that word again...) and colorful orchestration set the bar impossibly high for any composer giving us a portrait of Figaro. (NOTE: I feel impelled to point out that "Largo" is the only operatic aria to reference blood-letting by leeches. That's cool, right?) As genially pleasant as Paisiello's perfectly fine number was...

...Rossini upped the ante.

III. Basilio's "slander aria"
Neither composer, of course, could resist a comic aria for that oily weasel, Don Basilio. This is one of Paisiello's best achievements; I rate his "La calunnia" as a highly effective show-piece for a bass with the cavernous voice also demanded by Rossini. As you listen to this excellent performance, savor all the ways in which the composer graphically describes the progress of slanderous gossip from a whisper to a roar. The ascending scales remind me of the line "E il grande, maestoso" from Leoporello's "Catalogue aria" in Mozart's Don Giovanni (find your own Youtube recording of that!). When the big crescendo reaches its apex on a series of bellowed high E's, the strings produce some tremulous trills that might be describing the ill wind of slander, or the noise of murmuring gossips. It's good stuff!

Except that Rossini's La calunnia blows it out of the water. Once you've heard it (as in this exemplary performance) you realize that Paisiello didn't go far enough. Rossini not only out-does his predecessor in the descriptive crescendo, he also captures Basilio's slyness and subtlety, as in the opening theme. In comparison, Paisiello's Basilio is a bit straight-forward at the outset; he gives us the forcefulness of the character but not his weaselishness. (That's a word, right?) Rossini wisely assigns the burden of the crescendo to the orchestra, whereas in Paisiello, the voice does most of the work, with the orchestra tagging along for the ride.

Rossini upped the ante. How about one more?

IV. Rosina's opening solo.
Rossini's "Una voce poco fa" has become so familiar to opera-lovers, almost to the point of being as hackneyed as, say, the "Moonlight Sonata", that it's difficult to imagine how it sounded to those first audiences in 1816 who only knew Paisiello's Rosina. I can help you with that.

Our heroine's first solo in the earlier opera is not a full-fledged cavatina; it's a 75-bar solo comprising the opening section of a duet with Dr. Bartolo. And this music, "Lode al ciel" is gloriously beautiful. It is ravishing; elegant, graceful and eloquent. Listen to it here and perhaps you'll agree with me that if you didn't know who had composed it, you might assume it was Mozart at his most lyrical. This is the Classical Style at it's height.

Too bad it misses the character of Rosina by a mile.

Now, even if you know it well, listen to Cecilia Bartoli sing Rossini's aria; listen analytically, comparing it to the other. In assessing the two pieces, we have to clarify: who is Rosina? I think we can agree that she's smart, sassy, strong-willed, funny, lively and (of course) sweet to those she favors.

Is that what Paisiello's music conveyed? What I heard is music for a different kind of character; a poised, mature, reflective woman of introspective bent. My theory: Paisiello sees Rosina as a kind of Rapunzel. She's the princess being held captive in Bartolo's "tower", awaiting rescue by a handsome "prince". So her first solo paints her as a delicate girl hoping for better days to come. She might as well be a stuffed animal on the shelf a shooting gallery, waiting for someone to claim her as a prize.

In contrast, Rossini's setting reveals the real Rosina. In a strikingly modern attitude, she declares that she wants "Lindoro" and has a plan for landing him. She's pro-active! All her wit and energy are on full display, not to mention some impressive coloratura.

There are other operatic "re-makes", including Puccini's red-blooded Manon Lescaut, appearing ten years after Massenet's Manon. But no one ever achieved such a clear-cut triumph over a worthy predecessor as Rossini did in his masterpiece. No wonder even Beethoven was a fan!

But let me be clear: despite not measuring up to Rossini, Paisiello's opera is not bad! If I've left that impression, I regret it. The "first Barber" should be performed more often. I think it would be a good choice for a college opera program. The vocal demands are moderate and the music is truly enjoyable. But the Barber of 1816 is possibly the greatest situation comedy in all of opera.

It's a few weeks until Virginia Opera's production opens. In the meantime, maybe the Ghostbusters remake is on cable.

October 20, 2016

The deceptive cartoonishness of "The Barber of Seville"

Everyone - and I'm including hardened criminals serving life sentences in prison here - has seen the Bugs Bunny cartoon based on Rossini's The Barber of Seville (the next production upcoming for Virginia Opera). But I've been telling my students that Barber has an even closer connection to other Warner Brothers cartoon characters: Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.
Count Almaviva tries to enter Bartolo's house.

What happens in a Road Runner cartoon? Coyote wants to catch Road Runner, but it's difficult, so he comes up with crazy scheme after crazy scheme to get the job done. Roller skates with jet skis, painting a fake tunnel on the side of a mountain. etc. etc. The crazy schemes never work, ending in disaster.

In Rossini's opera, Rosina is the Road Runner, the "thing desired". Coyote is a combination of Almaviva and Figaro. Almaviva wants the "thing", but it's Figaro who devises crazy schemes to get his buddy into Bartolo's house. The first two schemes, in which Almaviva A) pretends to be a drunken soldier, and B) pretends to be Rosina's substitute music teacher, both go comically awry, ending in chaos. Of course, unlike Coyote, Almaviva eventually succeeds because he doesn't want to roast Rosina and eat her, he wants to marry her, and we're rooting for him.

I point out the cartoonishness of the plot to make the point that, as drama, neither Rossini's opera nor the 1775 Beaumarchais play on which it's based threaten King Lear or Long Day's Journey Into Night for serious messaging or depth of characterization. This show is escapist entertainment, right? The characters are one-dimensional stock figures from Commedia dell'Arte, right? I mean, Rosina is sweet & pretty & smart & sassy; Almaviva is likeable & dashing & handsome & funny; and so on.

Harmless, meaningless farce, right? Toe-tapping tunes and belly laughs and nothing more, right?

Not so much, in my opinion.

Remember that Barber is the first installment in a trilogy of Beaumarchais comedies (these days it would be called a "franchise") following Figaro, Almaviva and Rosina through the larger part of their adult lives, from youth to the onset of old age. The other two are 1781's The Marriage of Figaro (you may have encountered this title here or there...) and 1792's The Guilty Mother. 

My theory: no matter how well you know Rossini's The Barber of Seville, you don't really understand it until you consider it in the context of the other two plays.

While Marriage of Figaro still contains its share of crazy schemes and farcical humor, the cartoonish element has shrunk and the characters have taken on darker aspects. Almaviva, who was so winning in Barber, has been corrupted by wealth and privilege and is now a first-class TOOL. He ignores Rosina (now called the Countess) unless he suspects her of infidelity, in which case he flies off the handle. Furthermore, he's a degenerate skirt-chaser, spending the entire opera trying to get his wife's chambermaid into bed - ON HER WEDDING DAY. (Ewwww...) Rosina has lost her teenage sass and spunk; she's subdued and depressed, grieving for the loss of her husband's love. Figaro himself shows indications of having a temper and, what's more, he's not always quick on the uptake - not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Even when the Count turns to his better angels and begs Rosina's forgiveness, we in the audience feel uneasy about the supposed "happy ending", sensing that Almaviva will be on good behavior for a while, but eventually betray his wife again.

Yikes! What the hell happened to these people?

And then there are the clear political messages. Beaumarchais, an avid supporter of the American colonies in their revolt against King George of England, delighted in depicting an arrogant noble being defeated by two clever commoners. This caused the play to be banned by Louis XVI for three years, with tensions leading up to the French Revolution of 1789 already simmering.

And then there's the final play, which takes place 20 years after the events of Marriage of Figaro. In The Guilty Mother, the marriage of Rosina and Almaviva has, shockingly, become completely dysfunctional. The titular "guilt" consists of Rosina's having slept with the young page we met in the previous play (the girl-crazy Cherubino), and <GASP!> having borne his illegitimate son Léon. As for the Count he suspects that the boy may not be his though, with no proof, he can't end the marriage. Instead, he's arranging for Léon to have no inheritance. He's also given up his title, living now as a commoner in Paris.

Oh, and he's fathered a daughter by another woman. See? We were RIGHT about him.

It's up to Susanna and Figaro to help the troubled couple to make peace with their mistakes and enter their senior years with some degree of reconciliation.

HERE'S MY POINT: now that we've followed Rosina and Almaviva through their entire journey, we look back on the innocence of Barber differently. We realize that we were meant to fall in love with them upon our first meeting, in which case it was crucial that we not know anything bad about them.

Think about every great first date you ever went on. That other boy/girl was funny and charming; he/she made you laugh; you had so much in common! The same movies, the same values, the same ideas about politics and religion...

It might have only been after months of dating - or marriage - that flaws emerged. Intimacy lessens the urge to present only our best selves to our partners. meaning that now we observe that our partner leaves socks and underwear on the bathroom floor, tells raunchy jokes that make us cringe, doesn't always listen when we're speaking, and chews his/her nails.

The Barber of Seville is an operatic first date. We believe that the characters are uncomplicated and kind of perfect. The author wants us to bond with them; this will make us feel more deeply all the conflicting emotions brought about by the flaws that are introduced over time.

This stock figures are, in reality, just as complex and many-sided and believable as you and I.

In fact, look back on your own long-ago youth. (Here I'm assuming you're old like me!) Don't you smile wryly when you consider how simple life seemed to you as a teenager? Remember when you thought you had all the answers, and that "old people" (like Bartolo and Basilio) were easy targets for your superior wits and intelligence? Remember when life was a game that you were ALWAYS supposed to win? Remember when a crush felt like true love?


Look back on Rosina and Almaviva in the first play/opera as you look back on your own young adulthood: with bittersweet nostalgia brought about by the perspective that life's adversities always brings, even to fictional characters.

"Shallow farce"? I say not.

October 12, 2016

Blurring fiction and reality in "Pagliacci"

Enrico Caruso as Canio
Everyone knows that the finale of Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" is a play-within-a-play. The traveling clown troupe led by Canio, with a stage audience of chorus and extras gathered around to watch, enacts the same comedy they have performed innumerable times. We in the "real" audience have been provided key information that almost everyone in the stage audience lacks: that the comedy is mirroring recent off-stage events: Nedda, like the character she plays, has had an adulterous affair, and her cuckolded husband caught her in the act.

But there are levels of reality! We in the audience feel god-like in our omniscient awareness that two things are happening: A) the rapidly-devolving clown show, which lulled us into complacency for a while with its sight gags and rubber chickens; and B) the real unfolding tragedy that culminates with a "real" act of violence.

But the joke is on us: NONE OF IT IS REAL! We don't, actually, have "fiction" and "reality" happening simultaneously. Nedda doesn't really die! She'll come out in a minute and take a bow!

This blurring of fiction and reality is foreshadowed in the famous Prologue. We might not have had this classic baritone solo had not Victor Maurel, a super-star operatic singer who created many of Verdi's baritone roles, demanded an aria for Tonio. There being no way to insert another solo into the body of the libretto without destroying the rapid pace of the narrative, Leoncavallo opted to bring Maurel out in front of the curtain before the action.

This Prologue ends up being a kind of manifesto of the "nuova scuola" of Italian opera, most often called verismo (truth). Like a musical Martin Luther nailing his "treatises" on an opera house door, Leoncavallo lays out his story-telling ideal: This is not fake! It's REAL, I tell you! (Interestingly, moments later as the action begins, Canio contradicts Tonio, advising the villagers that "Life and the theater are not the same thing.)

But in the middle of the solo comes a most curious passage, one in which there is another intriguing blurring of the real and the artificial, one that, on reflection, causes a greater degree of confusion that does the clown show at the end.

Leoncavallo is on record as having claimed that the story of the opera was based on a true incident; a well-known murder trial that involved his father, Vincenze Leoncavallo, who presided over the trial as town magistrate. What's more, the crime had affected the family personally as the victim was a family associate.

Vincenze had hired a local youth, 22-year-old Gaetano Scavello to assist in raising his two sons, Ruggero (the future composer) and Leone. Scavello was in love with a village girl, but had competition: two brothers named D'Alessandro. Arguments, macho displays of "tough-guy" intimidation and naked jealousy quickly escalated until the day the brothers set a trap, laying in wait for Scavello. Each D'Alessandro set on the victim with a knife, resulting in charges of murder. These days, Vincenze would doubtless have recused himself from rendering judgement, but in any case, the brothers went away to life sentences at hard labor.

Now, you may take Leoncavallo at his word if you wish, and accept his assertion that the events described above bore fruit in the Pagliacci libretto. To be fair, both the actual crime and the opera share themes of jealousy over a woman and death by stabbing. But to Your Humble Blogger, that's weak tea. As stated in my last post, it seems clear that Verdi's Otello is the obvious model, buth in plot points, characterizations and even vocal styles.

Whatever the case, here's the fascinating element of the Prologue: Tonio begins referring to "our author"; that is, the composer of the opera; that is (I guess!!) none other than Ruggero Leoncavallo. Dig this:

"Our author has endeavoured .. to pain for you a slice of life. ... Deep-embedded memories stirred one day within his heart, and with real tears he wrote, and marked the time with sighs!"

Whoa. So let me get this straight: Tonio, a fictional character, is relating from personal knowledge what motivated the real human composer Leoncavallo to create the work in which he, Tonio, is singing? What - did the two of them meet at Starbucks and chat about the genesis of plot over Frappucinos? Perhaps the reason Canio contradicted Tonio's claim of "realism" is that he went to the wrong Starbucks and missed meeting the composer who made him up...

Okay, this is getting surreal.

And THEN! When the baritone begins that sweepingly lyrical section beginning "E voi piuttosto" he traditionally (though not in Virginia Opera's staging) removes the clown wig giving up his clown persona, speaking to us, the "real" audience out there, in his "real" persona. It's another neat bit of foreshadowing, because the bookend to that gesture will be Canio when he rips off his wig in anger, declaiming "No! Pagliaccio non son!" (No! I am not Pagliaccio!)

Now, follow me here: we know who Canio is when he rips off his wig: he's Canio, Nedda's "real" husband.

But who is Tonio when his wig comes off? Who is he when he reminds us that the artists we'll be seeing onstage are real men of flesh and blood? Is he Tonio? He's obviously not in his clown role of Taddeo.

Is he.... Sherrill Milnes, the Tonio in my DVD? Is he Leonard Warren, the Tonio of my CD? Are we, in other words, to assume that, since "Tonio" never removes his wig, then the wigless baritone who confides hes realness to us in a heart-to heart moment of intimacy is ... the actual performer portraying Tonio?

Is that it?

CAN'T BE! Because, of course, this "reality" is an illusion. NONE OF IT IS REAL, the long-dead corpse of Signor Scavello notwithstanding. Milnes, or Warren, or I myself (I often sing this number in the shower...) are NOT confiding a moment of sincerity in the Prologue; we're just regurgitating (okay, fine, let's say "recreating") words and music that have been sung for over a century and a quarter. "Carne ed ossa"? (Literally "flesh and bone", although ALL English translations substitute the more idiomatic "flesh and blood) Not so much. More like ink on paper, until a Milnes or a Warren creates the ILLUSION of "reality".

It's all..... blurry. This is, for me, the best and coolest aspect of this overly-familiar opera. It messes with your perceptions and, if you weep at Nedda's death (don't bother weeping for Silvio - he's kind of a tool), Leoncavallo pulls of one of opera's greatest "gotcha" moments. He made you forget that the "real" tragedy................... also fiction.

October 9, 2016

Things to watch & listen for in Pagliacci

I've been teaching classes on Pagliacci for the past several weeks. Here's a potpourri of incidental "stuff" about the opera I've been pointing out to students. Un po' di questo, un po' di quello.
Dorothy: a younger Nedda with birds on the brain

Like what? Like these:

The aria "Stridono lassu" is remarkable for being an about-face from soprano arias from the past; that past generation of Italian operas prior to the verismo sensation of the 1890's. Think of every soprano named Leonora; of Gilda, of Lucia Ashton, and their ilk: we generally get an expression of true love for the tenor in their lives. They will love him forever; they would die for him; they miss him; etc. etc. Nedda's big moment, on the other hand, amounts to Get me the hell out of Dodge, my life is like being in prison, let me be a freakin' bird and I will fly far far FAR away, although I might poop on that stupid clown wagon before I go. (Okay, that's not a "translation" per se; I'm kind of re-wording it a little.) Through familiarity, this solo has become little more than an ingratiating melody with an appealing lilt. In 1892, this kind of expression for a soprano was a bit shocking in its depiction of a dysfunctional marriage in which the woman has fallen OUT of love. No more fairy-tale princesses! Not all women are saintly: this is one of the tenets of verismo.

There's a clear-cut example of text-painting in the aria's final moments; the vocal line climbs higher and higher in a graphic depiction of Nedda's wish to join the birds overhead and ascend "up there". The device is obvious, but I mention it because it brings to bear on:

I'm always struck by the manner in which Harold Arlen, in crafting the score for The Wizard of Oz, recalled "Stridono lassu" in Dorothy's song "Somewhere over the rainbow". Like Nedda, Dorothy feels trapped by her family and longs for freedom. Like Nedda, Dorothy uses being a bird flying away as the metaphor for her unhappiness. And - like Nedda! - the final moments of "Rainbow" employ the same device of text-painting; the song ends with an ascending scale on the words "why, o why can't I". Admit it: it never occurred to you that those final notes were text-painting, did it?

I like those moments in a well-written opera when the orchestral underscoring reveals a character's unspoken thoughts; what they're thinking when they're either silent or saying something different. A good example occurs in the moments when "Taddeo" warns the lovers "Colombina" and "Arlecchino" that Colombina's husband "Pagliaccio" is returning early and their rendezvous will be discovered. As Arlecchino beats a hasty retreat, Colombina calls after him:

A stanotte, e per sempre io sarò tua. (Til tonight, and I'll be yours forever.)

What's cool about that is that, underneath her words, a solo cello is playing the theme of her love duet with Silvio. So, though the libretto has Colombina addressing Arlecchino, that cello quotation signals to alert listeners that Nedda has spotted Silvio out in the crowd and is speaking to him alone. This subtlety is not lost on Canio, who has heard her as he prepares for his entrance.

Notice how Leoncavallo cannot resist some overt mocking of old-fashioned virginal, virtuous sopranos from the canon of Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. "Taddeo" (played by Tonio) makes a great show of sarcastically praising "Colombina's" "virtue".

So che sei pura e casta al par di neve! (I know that you are pure and chaste as the driven snow!)

Later, he repeats the word "pura" with comic relish, as the stage audience howls at the obvious irony.
But, again, it's not just Taddeo mocking Colombina; it's Ruggero Leoncavallo "gently" mocking all those saintly and faithful old-fashioned sopranos, from various Leonoras to Lucia to Micaela. The verismo composers felt no little scorn for this type of character. Basta!

I love to point out to neophyte opera-lovers that opera is THEATER and not a CONCERT. When you consume opera only on the radio or your stereo device, you're missing a lot of the pleasure. Here's a good case in point:

From the moment Canio enters, don't just listen to the music; WATCH the artist portraying Nedda. Leoncavallo has provided the performer with a unique acting opportunity. In the Met DVD from the 70's, the formidable actor Teresa Stratas does an incredibly fine job of using body language and facial expressions to reveal Nedda's evolving understanding of her situation. This occurs in stages:
1) At Canio's entrance, Nedda seems not to grasp her immediate peril. Canio has entered on time and, while he appears to have been drinking, it may not be the first time. She assumes that the performance has shelved, for the time being, her marital problems. To quote Cole Porter it's "another op'nin', another show", and Nedda's expression and body language are completely in character. But then,
2) Her husband's unusual intensity of expression and unexpected ad-libs alert her to the fact that this is not an ordinary show.
3) When Canio sheds his wig and costume, launching into his "Pagliaccio non son" solo, he breaks down, broken-heartedly confessing that while he realized she could never love him, he had at least hoped for compassion from her. During this passage, watch Nedda's face. What Stratas did so well was to let her regret register on her face; she understands for the first time how her actions have hurt Canio. The consequences of adultery seem real, and she feels badly. HOWEVER,
4) It changes when Canio pivots from grief to rage, shouting that she doesn't deserve love, she has no shame and she now "disgusts" him. (It's Canio's Donald Trump moment...) When he goes on the attack, Nedda pivots from empathy and regret to pride and anger. His scorn for her turns her defiant, and this defiance is what dooms her. If Canio had not de-valued and abased her, but had rather stuck to expressing heartbreak, who know? Perhaps she would have embraced him and begged forgiveness. But he triggered her rage with his own, and this emotional stand-off could only end in violence.

Routine to concern to empathy/regret to angry defiance: this is a remarkable evolution that takes place in something like six or seven minutes. The soprano taking on Nedda better bring her acting chops!