Dimitrij: some background.

Tsar Ivan Vasilievich was not just Terrible, he was Гроэныӥ (Grozny), meaning ‘Thunderous’ or ‘Awesome’ ruler. This is what Varlaam calls Ivan in the Inn Scene of Boris Godunov as he sings of the legendary Battle of Kazan. But Terrible works too: don’t mess with Ivan.

He, named after John the Baptist and seventeen at the time, was crowned Tsar Ivan IV in January 1547. Ivan’s father, Grand Prince Vasily, died suddenly when the lad was four; his young mother died mysteriously when he was eight. Too young to be Tsar, the rule of Russia was disputed by rival Boyars, noblemen of the court who treated young Ivan like dirt. Ultimately a terrible mistake, this. Though still a minor, a perceptive Ivan was learning the rules of the game.

Nikolay Cherkasov as Ivan Grozny

Nikolay Cherkasov as Ivan Grozny

After his coronation, Ivan selected a bride from supposedly hundreds of candidates. Anastasia Zakharina-Romanova bore him six children, three boys and three daughters, but, sadly, his eldest son Dimitri drowns when a nurse holding him slips and drops the infant into icy water.

On a bigger front, Ivan waged a successful war against the invading Tartars, winning a decisive victory at Kazan in 1552. To celebrate, he ordered the construction of a massive cathedral in Red Square in the shape of an eight pointed star, today known as St. Basil’s.

As a point of reference in time: when Charles V abdicates in 1556, the reign in Spain stays mainly on son Philip II but Chuck 5 also places P's brother Ferdinand I in the seat of the Holy Roman Empire. Previously, Philip had governed the Netherlands territory, the rebellion in which remained a thorn in his side. Here is the stuff of Verdi’s grand opera in every way Don Carlo.

But, back to the matter at hand, in 1560 Anastasia died mysteriously. Ivan will marry again and again, but he had suffered a great loss with her passing. He became prone to terrors, depression and paranoia. In spite of his many many advances in knowledge, art, music, and trade in Russia, Ivan is remembered for his more Terrible deeds, such as executing 60,000 citizens in Novgorod and forming an elite group of 6,000 guards, called the Oprichniki, who effectively maintained his bloody hold over the population.

In 1580, Ivan, his eldest son and heir, and Tsar Ivan fell into a bitter argument. Boris Godunov, a faithful courtier to the Tsar, tried to stay Ivan’s hand against his son, but Ivan smashes his son’s skull with his staff. The remainder of the Tsar’s life is one of abject misery, insanity, and bizarre behavior, howling, laughing hysterically, throwing fits, and so on. This is the stuff of Sergei Eisenstein’s epic film in two parts Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan and son Fyodor in Eisenstein's film

Ivan and son Fyodor in Eisenstein's film

After Ivan’s death on March 17, 1584, he is succeeded by Fyodor, last son of Anastasia. Feeble minded, he reigned for 14 years under the guidance of the very same Boris Godunov, friend of pere Ivan, oh, and even better: Boris’s sister was married to Feodor. Allegedly, around this time Boris orders the assassination of Prince Dimitri, the youngest son by Ivan’s seventh wife. At Fyodor’s death, Boris stages ‘the Tsar by mandate of the assembled crowd’ event, which is not exactly, but pretty darn close to tampering with the election. He is crowned in 1598. These are the meat of the first two scenes, the Prologue of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov.

Fyodor Chaliapin as Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov

Fyodor Chaliapin as Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov

The final scenes of Boris Godunov tell of Boris’s fall: in 1601 or 1603, Grishka Otrepyev, aka the False Dimitri, entered Russia with a sizeable Polish army. The Poles, not to mention the Swedes, always had eyes on the riches to their east. Though Boris defeats the Poles and holds firm, Dimitri as a replacement for Boris gains support from factions of the Boyars. But Boris dies unexpectedly in 1605, ushering in the eight year period known as the ‘Time of Troubles.’ It is here that Dvořák’s Dimitrij begins.

In swift succession, Boris’s sixteen year old son Fyodor, in line to be Tsar, is clubbed to death and the beautiful Xenia, his sister, is banished to a convent. The False Dimitri, crowned later in '05, is Tsar for less than a year. Apparently he does not behave enough like a Russian, plus he has that Polish nag for a wife, so he loses support and is assassinated by the Boyar Vasili Shuisky, who himself is elected Tsar. Legend has it that Dimitri’s ashes were loaded into a cannon and shot back to Poland. So there!

It doesn’t get much better: there are four more Tsars in the next five years. The Swedes invade Novgorod, a second false Dimitri leads Poles to defeat Shuisky, they march on Moscow and capture the Kremlin. Then a False Elvis appears but, happily, for only a brief spell. In 1610 Shuisky is deposed. Seeking some stability, a faction offers the throne of Russia to Vladislav, son of Sigismund III of Poland. But in 1613, the choice finally falls to a young grandnephew of Ivan the Terrible, descendant of Anastasia, one Michael Romanov. The Poles almost find him to kill him, but he is saved by the self sacrificing heroism of Ivan Susanin, immortalized in music by Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar. The rest is history.

Hope this helps.

Ivan Grozny is the subject of Sergei Eisenstein’s two part epic by the same name (in Russian, Part One 1945; Part Two 1958), starring Nikolay Cherkasov as Ivan.

My sources are Land of the Firebird: the Beauty of Old Russia by Suzanne Massie, Simon and Schuster, 1980, and The Timetables of History by Bernard Grun, based on Werner Stein’s Kulturfahrplan. Simon and Schuster, Torchstone Edition, 1982.

Added soon will be a list of operas covering the period in question. Just not enough time

Until then, have a good day. J.

Okay, Tristan

Being a short ramble on Wagner’s unique Tristan und Isolde, a deep dark foray into the realms of human experience…not for the faint of heart. But maybe for you...

The Metropolitan Opera opens its second half century at Lincoln Center Plaza on September 26 with a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme in the title roles. Though it’s hard to imagine a confirmed opera lover who doesn’t know Tristan und Isolde, not to say ‘who doesn’t love Tristan und Isolde’ (but I do), the opera’s musical and vocal demands render performances as special occasions, even more so when the stars as well are highly anticipated, as is the case this season. It’s not performed as frequently as La Bohème with a ‘wait, who’s singing tonight?’ cast in other words.

I find Wagner's Tristan und Isolde to be among the great operatic masterpieces of any century, let along the 19th. It can be, it should be a unique musical dramatic experience for those willing to take the plunge. Life's too short to recount my own journey with Tristan. Besides, it's your turn.

It's an impact piece: its music especially influenced a generation of composers and intellectuals. Tristan und Isolde was the hook that drew a young Friedrich Nietzsche to Wagner, and also rocked virtually every other composer’s boat; Marcel Proust, James Joyce, T. S. Elliot, Thomas Mann, among others, allude to it in their writings. Its sound haunts one. Check out Lars von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia, also a tale of love and death, if you’re not convinced how powerfully gut-wrenching Tristan’s music can be.

But special as it is, and, as I say, I very much believe that this opera is so very special in context of the standard repertory, Tristan und Isolde is, I think, the least user-friendly opera, emotionally speaking, in the Wagner canon, which means that, like Ulysses, you have to give it time and some effort. Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin are a relative walk in the park, easy to digest, just sit back and enjoy; the Ring has lots of quotable music and scenes, thus more accessible to the general public on a highlight disc, so one can more or less prepare for the sound picture, play ‘name that motif’ in the process. Plus, on stage, the Ring has an epic grandeur, big scenic effects, and a damn good story: Brünnhilde’s awakening at the end of Siegfried carries with it the accumulation of all of the emotional baggage you’ve packed up from Die Walküre, thus making it a real hyper moment. Wotan’s there at the foot of the mountain, the Magic Fire Music sizzles again, then the first high strings in the whole evening, it seems, just to set the stage, so to speak. Wagner nailed that one! Die Meistersinger is longer but brighter, every section is more lyrical and easily palatable, and I find Parsifal to be deeply satisfying because, in the end, it’s peaceful, all is set right with a world that was not right at the beginning of the opera. He’s a fool, yes, and it’s not the world I live in, but I very much love the journey in Parsifal. Check out OM’s review of a few Parsifal DVDs.

The great Birgit Nilsson as Isolde, circa 1966

The great Birgit Nilsson as Isolde, circa 1966

Alas, Tristan und Isolde is less user-friendly because it dwells, it just dwells, and it’s never happy or, if so temporarily, trouble lurks in the shadows. It dwells because Wagner wants you to connect with each prolonged moment. Tristan and Isolde, the two of ‘em, almost wear you down with their back and forth about everything. In Act I Isolde goes on nearly forever about how pissed off she is and her plans for revenge; in Act II the two of ‘em go on nearly forever about night and day (Cole Porter, bless him, was far more succinct) and about the spiritual/emotional meaning of the word ‘and,’ and and and this is followed by King Marke’s usually dull downloading, depending on who's singing, about being betrayed (no small wonder Isolde refers to him as a ‘weary King’ in Act I). And then in Act III, for god’s sake, Tristan goes on forever about his journey from darkness of death to the light of day, the meaning of all that, but then he dies, in spite of all his new-found delirium, just as Isolde arrives. All joking aside, Act III of Tristan is one of the most perfectly formed, forward moving acts in all opera. If done correctly it should be something you'll not soon forget.

This said, I should have issued the spoiler alert about the 'before she arrives' thing. Oh, and the repeated ands above were intentional, not a stuttertypo, if such a word exists.

There’s no real peace, not musically, not dramatically, not really emotionally in Tristan und Isolde. Most of the time it takes you to places you’d otherwise avoid. It's a trip.

True, there is Isolde’s Liebestod, which, usually paired with the Prelude to Act I, is the only other frequently excerpted music from Tristan. The Liebestod should be a blissful, transcendent moment, but after the emotional turmoil of almost all of Act III, it’s hard to find and attain that state of consciousness.

Why is Tristan like this? If anything Richard Wagner knew exactly what he was doing. A few quick introductory words are necessary.

Briefly, the story of its inception is both simple and complicated. This is the simple version of the story: We’re in the mid-1850s, Richard Wagner, now in exile from Saxony, under sentence of death, commits himself to revolutionizing operatic forms in Oper und Drama and in other prose works of the period, the Ring being the first fruit, or, more correctly, the whole orchard. But he eventually stalls in its composition (in the middle of Siegfried) due to despair over the improbability of ever seeing the massive cycle performed on any existing stage. Around this same time, Wagner’s wife Minna and other friends encourage him to take a break from the enormous undertaking and write something more stageworthy, like, how about a simple story with just a few characters, only basic scenic demands, like nothing under water involving swimming semi-clad nixies and hairy lusty nibelungs, no giants, no dragons or flying horses, no magic fire, in other words, something that he could more easily sell to an opera company even in smaller cities. Minna, his nagging wife, never understood Wagner’s enormous inner creative fire as much as Wagner never understood her need that he support his household with earned income.

At the same time Wagner reads Schopenhauer, who effectively gives him the philosophical green light to represent extreme inner emotional states with music, which, in fact, would make his new operas ‘music dramas,’ not just another ‘opera’ in which the music is just a catchy tune underlying the verses of an aria. The score of Die Walküre, especially Acts I and III, is his first chance to really let it all hang out.

Coincident with this, Wagner meets the young and beautiful Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of Otto Wesendonck, a wealthy merchant who consents to let the Wagners shack up in a cottage on the estate so that he can compose in peace. It’s not clear to this day how physical, if at all, the two became, but their letters indicate a passionate admiration at least of an artistic sort. In Mathilde he found a tender soul who ‘understood’ him and his art; in him she found a man who was deep, soulful, alive and a composer to boot. She wrote five songs which he set to music by 1858, two of which form a ‘study’ of Tristan; it is said that the score of Die Walküre, especially the love scene in Act I, contains coded love scribbles to her.

But she was of wealth and rank whereas Wagner was bourgeois at best. All of these factors underlie the genesis of Tristan und Isolde.

Wagner claims that the story of Tristan and Isolde and the conceptualization of the music more or less erupted between 1854 to the completion of the text in 1857. The composition of the score of Tristan, which derailed the Ring, was completed by 1859; Tristan und Isolde premiered in Munich in 1865 after Wagner was 'rescued' by King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

It fit his needs, too: simple story, just a few characters, and basic scenic demands. Not a dragon in sight. The ideas underlying the plot are also relatively simple, in spite of its length. In a few words, Tristan is about the issue of the artificial distinctions assigned to us in the world of the day (honor, title, rank, reputation, wealth, race, nation, etc.), the self as conceived by civilization, in other words, distinctions which are totally at odds with the world of the night where none of this matters. Only in the night is the selfless unity of the souls possible. Or in death, should the ever approaching dawn be a nuisance.

As an agent of King Marke of Cornwall, Tristan slays Morold, the Irish warrior and also Isolde’s intended. But, wounded, he seeks release from the world through death by casting himself adrift in a small bark, only to drift ashore and be rescued by Isolde herself and Brangäne, her faithful companion. Is it fated that they should meet?

They nurse him back to health, but, as his strength returns, Isolde discovers that the notch in Tristan’s sword matches the sliver taken from Morold’s severed head. She then realizes his true identity. As she lifts the sword above his prostrate body to dispatch her enemy forever, their eyes meet, their love is sealed. All this happens before the curtain opens, we learn about it in the section known as Isolde’s Narrative and Curse in Act I.

Think about it. I’ll bet he did: Wagner stumbled at the composition of Siegfrieds Tod (The Death of Siegfried) in 1848 because he felt a lot of the backstory about Siegfried and the Dragon and the awakening of Brünnhilde should be performed on stage, so that it could be directly experienced by the audience. He sketched a prequel opera Junge Siegfried, but then realized that Brünnhilde’s story also would have greater impact with an opera of her own (Die Walküre), all in context of a more universal issue (greed and power versus love) in Das Rheingold. At least Wagner didn’t cave in to the inclination to write a Junge Tristan.

Back to the story! Tristan concocts an idea, creative, but ultimately foolhardy: in order to be near the woman he loves, he proposes that Isolde, the Irish princess, will make a good match for his elderly uncle, King Marke, thus cementing a peace between the two realms. But the civilized world, the world of Day, demands that Tristan respect this courtly arrangement and thus he is cordial and deferential to her on the journey to Cornwall in Act I. And she’s pissed off at all this, hence the Curse part alluded to above.

As Act I moves on, note that Brangäne and Kurwenal (Tristan’s trusty right hand man) roundly praise Tristan’s heroism (reputation and honor) while Isolde is simply scornful. Isolde plans to poison herself and Tristan rather than submit to the humiliation of being another’s wife, but, so the plot goes, Brangäne swaps out this vial for the love potion. T & I, thinking their last moments are near, embrace ecstatically until it’s evident to both that in fact these are not their last moments. Nearly three more hours of opera to go, kids.

Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde hands Lauritz Melchior as Tristan the goblet in Act I

Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde hands Lauritz Melchior as Tristan the goblet in Act I

In Act II, Isolde awaits Tristan in the garden at night. The long love duet, the apex of the musical dramatic arc from beginning to end of the opera, is a real induction into an altered state of consciousness, a timelessness, especially the first part of the duet and short section known as Brangäne’s Watch (Wacht, in German, meaning a night watch, not a timepiece). James Levine always got it just right. It’s also, as fitting, a discussion of selflessness and oblivion. Even if cut, and one chunk just before the actual duet often is, you’ll get the gist of their perspectives.

Sadly, their love is interrupted by the dawn and the arrival of King Marke and his retinue, on a tip from Melot, formerly Tristan’s confidant. On Isolde’s assurance that she will follow him, Tristan runs himself onto Melot’s sword, thus starting his journey toward Death, the eternal Night. In Act III, the beginning of which is among the more gloomy moments in all of opera, Tristan emerges from his near-death experience to the call of the shepherd’s pipe to explore his fate from birth, which is to yearn but never achieve fulfillment, and therefore suffer, which pretty much sums up Wagner’s state of mind at the time of its composition. He poured out his suffering in his letters to her. Wagner IS Tristan, make no mistake of it.

Frieda Leider, Flagstad's predecessor, is a formidable Isolde too

Frieda Leider, Flagstad's predecessor, is a formidable Isolde too

I always recommend that you listen to the sound picture and text before the live performance. Knowing the sound picture, the pacing, and the structure are a big help for the newcomer. I’m leaving out DVDs this time.

To my ears, two studio recordings are engaging: one is Wilhelm Furtwängler’s epic Tristan on EMI with Kirsten Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus. Furtwängler is magnificent and Suthaus especially is very moving, even more so the more frequently you listen to him; Flagstad is, always she was, more monochromatic, more even, but at this time also more ‘mature’ than I prefer, not to ‘say over the hill.’ Don’t let that or the monaural sound stop you though.

It’s not complete, but Frieda Leider, who just preceded Kirsten Flagstad, has a very listenable, often thrilling album of excerpts with Lauritz Melchior recorded in the studio in 1929. But I digress.

The other studio recording recommended is Antonio Pappano’s newer essay on EMI with Nina Stemme and Placido Domingo. I anticipate a great night at the Met with Nina Stemme. Domingo is lighter in voice, though no lighter than Wolfgang Windgassen, but Domingo is sincere and never strained. A bonus DVD has the entire opera in 5.1 sound with projected translation. Daniel Barenboim’s studio recording with Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem on Teldec is very respectable as well.

Of live on stage recordings I would not do without Birgit Nilsson and Windgassen from Bayreuth 1966, under Karl Böhm, either in reasonably good stereo sound on DG (recorded in the Festspielhaus, each act on a separate day without audience, so I’m told) or in relatively decent sound of the actual radio broadcast from August 13 that season on Frequenz (hard to find).

But hard core Wagnerians will want to experience for themselves a younger Kirsten Flagstad and the great Lauritz Melchior in their prime. The 1937 Covent Garden performance (actually the recording is patched together from two evenings), he 47, she a week or two away from 42 at the time, under Sir Thomas Beecham is highly recommended as is the 1938 Metropolitan Opera matinee performance under Artur Bodanzky, which is one of the operas in Sony Classical’s Wagner at the Met box. Both are cut, the Met’s more heavily, and Bodanzky wastes no time on the score. But both singers are really hot. Easier to find perhaps is the Fritz Reiner 1936 Tristan from Covent Garden, available on Naxos and VAI labels. My dear mother saw Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior in Tristan und Isolde at the Met in 1935. In answer to my questions ‘what were they like, how did they sound??’ she mainly seemed stuck on the fact that Tristan is mortally wounded at the end of Act II but takes almost all of Act III to die. But she was only 19 and probably hadn’t heard a note of it before that day.

Of my memorable Tristans, Jess Thomas, Jon Vickers, both with Birgit Nilsson at the Met in the early '70s, Siegfried Jerusalem with Waltraude Meier at Bayreuth in the '90s, and Ben Heppner back at the Met are on the list. Of memorable Isoldes not yet mentioned I’d place Hildegard Behrens and Johanna Meier in the '80s high up there. Conductors? All stars.

All this said, take the plunge! Enjoy Tristan und Isolde, give 'em a group hug.  It’s an incredible musical experience, an opera not to be missed. I wouldn't trade the opportunity for the world.

If you can find it, Joseph Kerman's Opera as Drama from 1952 (Random House, but mine is a later now brown-edged Vintage Books paperback about to fall apart if I open it) is a good read. He puts Tristan und Isolde in the chapter "Opera as Symphonic Poem."

A word on the photos: that of Birgit Nilsson was scanned from the booklet in the DG Bayreuth recording from 1966; the photo of Flagstad and Melchior was scanned from the album cover from the Wagner at the Met box from Sony Classical; Frieda Leider, obviously caught at a bad moment, is from the Legato Classics 2 CD set of studio and live excerpts of her performances. 

JRS. Still feels like summer. Savor it!

The three Ps in Turandot

On the origin of the three Ps…

An FAQ in my classes is “Why would Puccini put the stupid clowns in Act II of Turandot in the way of the famous Riddle Scene?”

Fair enough. Well, first of all it balances the act in running time, second: the first act ends large and the second act gets really large, so where are you going to give the big singers and chorus a break? And let’s be real: the end of the Riddle Scene musically and dramatically should be followed by an intermission, so your ears can stop ringing, not by something less intense to drag things out.

But the more artistic reason was that Puccini was giving a nod to the Commedia dell’Arte tradition, specifically to Carlo Gozzi, whose ‘scenario’ for the Turandot story was more or less improvised on stage in the late 1700s by Commedia types.

Harlequin and Tartaglia

Harlequin and Tartaglia

In Ferruccio Busoni’s opera Turandot, a Chinese fable in two acts (Zurich, 1917) the clowns have their Commedia names: Truffaldino, Pantalone, and Tartaglia. What’s more the three riddles are different.

Here’s a fun fact: Adelma (in the Busoni she’s the equivalent of Puccini’s Liu) actually rats to Turandot and reveals Calaf’s name in return for her freedom. Whoa! Puccini’s Liu tenders a hopeless devotion to Calaf because he smiled upon her and in the end she sacrifices her life before giving away his name under torture; Adelma wants revenge because Calaf laughed at her. No love lost in the Busoni.

Another fun fact: Busoni’s Turandot had its American Stage Premiere at the Palace Theatre in Stamford, CT in November of 1986 under the baton of Laurence Gilgore. It may have been the very first full length feature on opera I wrote for the local rag, but it might have followed my review of Renata Scotto’s Butterfly at the Met…they were the first and those were the days.

Thoughts on Berg's Lulu

Thoughts on my little Lulu

Didn’t I just say Lulu isn’t easy to love? But I actually love her. Or do I?

I love the complexity of the whole thing. Berg’s opera, I mean. My relationship with Lulu is on stage, audio/visual, ergo totally platonic, to the extent that it’s even possible with her or with Lulu itself. I don’t have fantasies. Actually I don’t want her near me, near my wife or my family. But might I get to know her?

Lulu and its protagonist are projective tests right there in front of us for an evening. How we understand the abundant ambiguities of her character, her motives, her reactions are shaped as much by our models of how the world is (or how it should be) (or how it emphatically should not be) as it is by how Berg himself conceived her, and, of course, how the director conceives her and how the singing actress plays her on stage. Our needs get in the way too.

But can we love her? Would you love her? Ask yourself: how well do you tolerate serialism in music? To what degree do you need characters in opera to make sense? No, really. In general how well do you deal with ambiguity or non-sequiturs in a text…or on a date? A challenge, am I right? Are you under 35, single, alienated and lonely?

Marliss Petersen as Berg's Lulu at the Met, November 2015

Marliss Petersen as Berg's Lulu at the Met, November 2015

Thoughts here are about what we’re dealing with on stage, what Berg chose to create for us, not what he could have shown us. By his own reckoning, Berg trimmed his sources for Lulu, the two Wedekind plays, down to one fifth their original length into a workable libretto for an opera clocking just under three hours. Had he not, the confounding thing would rival the Ring in running time. Imagine that! Life is too short.

In the opera Lulu’s origins and upbringing are clouded in contradictions. Take Schigolch, the old man who wheezes into her new life with the Painter in Scene Two of Act I. Dr. Schön calls him her ‘father.’ But is he? Possibly. The Painter tags him as a beggar, but note that Lulu is not remotely surprised to see him, as if his visits have been routine in the past, like before she was hitched to the Painter. She almost seems to have expected him, he knows where she lives, although it’s possible this particular occasion is his first visit to her new digs. Note too that Schigolch calls her meine kleine Lulu, which pleases her, not Nelly, Eva, or Mignon, the names her other men use for her. He replies Hab ich dich jemals anders genannt? (Have I ever named you anything else?). There is history here.

But then in Act II, as Schigolch is trading pleasantries with the Acrobat and the Schoolboy, he says, matter of factly about Lulu "who hasn't wanted to marry her?" "Wait, she's not your child?" they ask. "No way," Schigolch replies, "she never had a father."

Okay, I'm confused. Pausing to think about it, it’s not so much that the others call her whatever they wish, it’s that they don’t seem to care, even when corrected, that she has had other possibly different identities with other persons. Are we saying to name someone is to exert control?

Or are we saying Lulu, who has no father, is also all names, the ‘everywoman,’ das ewige Weibliche who will Zieht uns hinan, scribed by Goethe (and praised to the skies by Gustav Mahler in the grand finale of his Symphony of a Thousand, soloists, chorus and orchestra intoning the text of Faust, Part Two)? Or should we think of her as Die Erdegeist, not an angel, but a low spirit of the Earth? It’s Franz Wedekind’s title for his play, which comprises approximately the first half of Berg’s libretto. She could be Venus, though somehow 'Flytrap' comes quickly to mind. She could be an incarnation of Lilith, the first and sometimes contrary wife of Adam, rib story be damned. But Lilith also sometimes could become a beast or a demon, like when she left the Garden of Eden and fornicated with someone...Sam somebody. Who cares at this point.

Yes, Schigolch needs money in Act I, but he had money once: he refers to better times in the past. We gather that he, regardless of who he really is, is never absent too long from her life. In Act II, Lulu tells Alwa that Schigolch is an old friend of Dr. Schön, that they were in the war together. But were they?

At the first curtain Lulu is and has been the mistress of the powerful newspaper man Dr. Ludwig Schön. But she is married to a rich old fossil called Herr Medizinalrat, soon to be extinct before the end of the scene. Though sex obviously enters into their long relationship, Schön has known Lulu since she was twelve: the little gamin in the streets selling flowers outside a café. She tried to steal his watch. Schön took her in. She fulfilled his every need after his wife died, perhaps even before, but it’s more than just for pleasure that Lulu feels bound to him. He has given her kindness and protection, if at the price of his soul. Watching, listening to her early in the opera, it seems that Lulu is rather like a stray cat taken in to one’s home, now here to stay. Indeed she calls herself an animal. Is this love?

But more recently, and here comes the big snag, Dr. Schön wishes to end their relationship, marry another, and return to a life a bit more normal, respectable, and public. He has tried in the past to free himself from her: not only has Schön brokered two advantageous marriages for Lulu, first to the Doctor, the above mentioned Medizinalrat, and then, after the former’s sudden death in Scene One, to the Painter. In addition, Schön has connived to have the latter’s paintings of her sold at a pretty price and has advanced her career as a dancer, with the not-so-hidden motive of attracting new suitors for her. He has made Lulu a self-supporting woman in many ways.

Still Lulu will not leave him. Unlike Nabokov’s Lolita, Lulu wants to stay with Humbert H. Schön. The stray cat hangs around. By the end of Act I, Lulu forces Schön to break his engagement to the society woman who is only a year younger than she. Lulu knows that au fond Schön is too weak to escape her. The music accompanying her protestation of their unbreakable relationship is indeed troubling.

But Alwa, Schön’s son, revolves in a similar orbit. In the Wedekind plays, Alwa is a playwright; in the opera he is a composer. We soon know who he is: when in Scene Three of Act I he wonders about the possibilities of making an opera about Lulu’s husbands, his thoughts are introduced by a quote from Berg’s Wozzeck. Alwa is Berg himself. In the Met’s new William Kentridge production, a sketch of Berg’s face is projected behind Alwa before he muses.

Why is it important to know that Alwa is Alban Berg’s on-stage persona? Well for one thing, Berg was allegedly thinking of his mistress, his soul mate in a passionate relationship crafted before and on-going all through the composition of Lulu. This passion fuels the only true love scene (such as it is) in the opera.

The links are interesting. Berg’s mistress was one Hanna Werfel Fuchs, sister to Franz Werfel, the writer who ultimately bedded, then later married Alma Schindler Mahler, whom he called a “sorceress.” Alma became his after the collapse of her affair with and marriage to the architect Walter Gropius and, more importantly, after the death of her first husband, the great Gustav Mahler, whom the entire Western musical world knows and loves.

For the record, a young Alma was pursued by Alexander Zemlinsky and even dallied with the artists Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka. They, like her proud, strong father, were artists of genius.

Anyway, Hanna Werfel was married to a Herbert Fuchs Robettin, a somebody who today is, to most of us, just a name.

Through Alma’s arrangements, Berg lodged with the Fuchs family in May of 1925 so that he could be in town to oversee the Prague premiere of his Three Fragments from [his only opera at this point] Wozzeck, conducted by the august and aforementioned Zemlinsky, who also taught music to and championed the works of Berg, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton von Webern, soon to be the giants of 20th century serialism.

For the record, digressing here, Zemlinsky wrote a number of quite interesting operas, especially Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) and Eine floritinische Tragödie (A Florintine Tragedy), both based on works by Oscar Wilde, both perversions of a hearth and home style love. He also authored respectable symphonies, song cycles, and chamber pieces.

Deeply taken with her, Berg wrote an epic musical love letter to Hanna: his 2nd string quartet, the Lyric Suite (premiered January, 1927). He used the notes (German notation) A, B (Alban Berg) and H, F (Hanna Fuchs) and their special numbers 10 and 23 as structural elements throughout the six movements, with a musical quote of the verse Du bist mein Eigen, mein Eigen (You are my one and only, my one and only) from the Third Movement of Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphonie (hence the title of Berg’s Suite) and a quote from the prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in the final minutes. The Lyric Suite is one of Berg’s most frequently performed compositions. He dedicated the piece to Zemlinsky, but Berg, as a secret gift to Hanna, annotated all of the musical references in a special miniature score of the Lyric Suite in multicolored inks; the score was not revealed until after Hanna died in 1964.

A little aside on recording media: the back cover notes for my old Vox Stereo LP of Berg’s Lyric Suite (paired with Schonberg’s Verklärte Nacht, both elegantly recorded by the Ramor Quartet, 1963) is all about the music in the abstract. There are warnings to the buyer, but they don’t mention any subtext of the Suite addressing an immoral extramarital love affair, which, had ratings existed back then, would make it PG-13, but no, they warn that, among other things, “Your stylus should be frequently checked under a microscope; a worn out needle will ruin your entire collection; no stylus is permanent”…nor is your entire vinyl collection apparently. Neither is your mind or your body. But I've digressed again.

Alwa admits to total awe the first time he met Lulu, there, as his dear mother lay dying. He even insists, after his mother passes, that his father should marry Lulu or else fight a duel with him. Strong sentiments!

Alwa remembers when he and Lulu were youngsters together, like brother and sister, he says. How much did he know about her real place in the family? Significant that when Alwa later admits his adult love for her, he will call her Mignon.

But Lulu feels safe with him, adding that he is the only man who protects her without trying to destroy her.

By the first third of Act II, Alwa is becoming totally smitten with Lulu, as much as she is becoming selbst gesmitten with herself. Ja gewiss, she muses, ich bin ein Wunderkind (Yes certainly I am a wonderchild (in one translation, a 'miracle' in another, a 'prodigy' in yet another). To this she adds quickly Als ich mich im Spiegel sah, hätte ich ein Mann sein wollen…mein Mann (When I see myself in the mirror, I wish I were a man…my own husband). Lulu's butterfly of narcissism has broken free from its cocoon.

As Alwa begins his descent into the slavery of love he caresses her hand, her arm, saying Mignon, ich liebe dich, to which Lulu casually replies that she poisoned his mother.

Dr. Schön, now quite mad due to all the random visitors who stray in and out of his house, wants to end their relationship by forcing Lulu to shoot herself. But animals naturally are survivors: Lulu shoots him instead. Not once, five times! His dying father warns him ‘you’ll be next,’ but it doesn’t stop Alwa from taking the plunge.

So Lulu goes to prison. But she escapes through a clever but risky plan hatched by the Countess Geschwitz; Schigolch (here he is again) will bring her back to us.

Apropos to the ‘love scene’ in Lulu, Alwa (Berg) likens the movements of a chamber composition to Lulu’s anatomy (in Berg’s fantasy Hanna’s) as he explores her body: her ankles a grazioso, her knees a misterioso, and so on.

Lulu almost kills the mood by reminding Alwa that she shot his father to death, but she isn’t alone with mood killing one liners: Alwa matter of factly observes Wenn deine beiden grossen Kinderaugen nicht wären, müsste ich dich die abgefeimteste Dirne halten, die je einen Mann ins Verderben gestürzt (Were it not for your two big childlike eyes, I should say you were the most designing of whores who ever brought a man down to his doom). Thrust!

Parry! Lulu replies Wollte Gott, ich wäre das! (I wish to God I were that!).

Yet as their passions rise, Lulu chills the mood with Ist das noch der Diwan - auf dem sich - dein Vater - verblutet hat? (Is this not the divan on which your father bled?).

Why would she say that, given that Alwa is obviously so in love and aroused?

As I said in OperaMetro’s preview of the HD season, bottom of the page Metropolitan Opera ReviewsLulu is not exactly a date opera!

Lulu meets Jack the Ripper

Lulu meets Jack the Ripper

Bottom line, as she lays it out to us: she’s just an animal. At the opera's very beginning, according to the stage directions, she is carried in by the Animal Trainer's assistant August. The trainer calls her a snake.

But more than this, she says, in her aria titled the Lied von Lulu, Ich habe nie in der Welt etwas anderes scheinen wollen, als wofur man mich genommen hat; und man hat mich nie in der Welt für etwas anderes genommen, als was ich bin. (essentially “I’ve never in the world pretended to be anything I am not; no one has ever taken me for anything but what I am.”)

Popeye, somewhat less complex than Lulu, says this too: “I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam.”

And therein begins her decline. Alwa cannot support her. Lulu is still evading the police as an escaped murderess, constantly threatened with exposure. Alwa, Schigolch, and the Countess Geschwitz stick with her, but many are wiped out by a stock market crash. Cash is scarce.

In the end, in the slums of London, she is reduced to prostitution to pay the rent. Her abasement is hastened by encounters with three men of the night, counterparts to the three destroyed in her rise to the 'top.' Trying to protect her, Alwa is killed by the African Prince; Jack the Ripper, Dr. Schön’s darker persona, finally ends her Lulu's life; he also stabs Geschwitz, as if an afterthought. Schigolch, meanwhile, is downstairs in the pub.

So are we saying that Lulu can thrive only as long as Dr. Schön is alive? That she and those left behind with her were relatively powerless to take care of her? Hardly a Wunderkind. Can the Eternal Feminine be so helpless and dependent? Or that she doesn't fit in a male dominated society. Hmm. Or is it the case that the Eternal Feminine is eternally misunderstood and therefore destroyed by the eternal masculine. If you think of Lulu's arc in the opera, she becomes practically mythic, no parents, miracle, prodigy, narcissistic, but only to the extent that Alwa can love her. But then she takes the fatal misstep of shooting his father; the laws of civilization take her down. What's an archetype to do? 

Preceding Lulu there were a spate of irresistible bad girls on stage, perhaps more lovable, but some not. Following Violetta, we have Manon Lescaut, sweet but still bad news for Des Grieux; Mimi and Musetta seem to have no problem getting around without their men; Carmen is a hardened professional; Tigrana, in Puccini’s Edgar, torments and kills.

Interesting aside: to capture a more aggressive and sexual woman, as he had done in Edgar, Giacomo Puccini was urged by his publisher Ricordi to compose an opera based on La Femme et le Pantin (The Woman and the Puppet), a novel by the turn of the century French author Pierre Louÿs. It’s the tale of Conchita Perez, who arouses her man's desires to an aching peak but then torments him by refusing to allow him near her. (I won’t tell you how it ends.) Puccini waxed and waned, but he later dropped it, observing “there are no nice people in this opera.” He called her the “Spanish Slut.” Riccardo Zandonai, of Francesca da Rimini fame, later composed Conchita; it achieved a decent level of success.

When you stop to think of it, there are no nice people in Berg’s Lulu either. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to love it.

Still there were a lot of strange goings-on in those years, still speaking operatically. I mentioned Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg above, but don’t forget Strauss’s Salome (also based on Oscar Wilde). Korngold’s Violanta is hot, Schreker’s Grette in Der ferne Klang and Carlotta in Die Gezeichneten are corrupted sexually by heartless men, Brecht/Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny have their share of tarts. The turn of the century is also the time of Arthur Schnitzler’s plays and his Traumnovelle (Dream Story), the source of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). And then there is Freud.

Translations are cobbled from various libretti.

Met photos of Lulu are by Ken Howard, new production, 2015.

Karen Monson, in her 1970 biography of Alban Berg, suggests that Klimt's Judith I is nearer to the essence of Berg's Lulu. The image posted here is one of six Klimt coasters from Vienna.

Just rambling. Enjoy Lulu in HD.

Donizetti in context

Some historical chat about Donizetti and La favorite

Though proud to have secured a commission in 1839 from the Opéra in Paris (who wouldn’t be?), Donizetti was rushed to submit a complete score by the new director, Léon Pillet, who found himself facing a season full of holes. Other projects, including Meyerbeer’s grand opera Le Prophète and even Donizetti’s own Le Duc d’Albe were behind schedule. The fussy Meyerbeer would not complete Prophète until nearly a decade later; Donizetti never completed Le Duc. It later became the source libretto for Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes.

Gaetano Donizetti

Gaetano Donizetti

For starters, Pillet wanted a hit grand opera with strong tenor and soprano roles. Oh, and please add three juicy roles for baritone, bass, and a light soprano to set off the lower more dramatic soprano voice of the heroine, then of course a ballet in Act II (required for French grand opera) and a huge confrontation between all assembled in Act III. Pillet also knew that French audiences seemed to crave stories of religious piety versus pride versus carnal desire, base nobility and noble commoners, all in a compromising mix of intrigue. It worked for Les Huguenots, right? Could Donizetti meet the deadline?

Just as Rossini and Bellini had done in the past, actually just as most composers did back then, Donizetti borrowed from his own unfinished projects, mostly, in this case, the libretto for L’ange de Nisida. The plot and text were hastily reworked and tinkered with by three librettists, among them the famous Eugene Scribe, who had written libretti for Auber, Meyerbeer, and Rossini.

Rosina Stolz, Pillet’s mistress, was already signed to do the prima donna role of Léonor. She and he apparently so abused their power that both were forced to resign from control of the Opéra in 1847.  The famous tenor Louis Gilbert Duprez was engaged to sing Fernand. In addition to being a fine singer, Duprez achieved notoriety by singing a high C from the chest (the way it has been sung since the late 19th century) instead of with a head voice (as it had been sung for centuries before).

But Donizetti was also experiencing the first serious symptoms of his syphilis around this time, some surfacing even as far back as the days of Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). OM asked Will Crutchfield (deleted from the longer interview posted on the page Regional Opera) if there were any indications of Donizetti’s art being compromised during the creation of La favorite. He (WC) replied: “None. As far as I can tell, Donizetti was able to function musically as long as he was able to function at all.  His eventual breakdown was signaled by episodes of disorientation and bizarre behavior, but my impression is that the notes in his head and his ability to get them onto paper were the last things to go.”

From troubling but sporadic signs of illness to complete collapse, Donizetti’s deterioration was steady; his symptoms became more evident and more frequent by 1845. He was transported to his hometown of Bergamo, Italy in 1847; he died in April of 1848.

La favorite premiered at the Opéra on December 2, 1840. Though not an immediate success, the opera gained favor over time and is remembered as Donizetti’s finest grand opera. It would soon be translated and travel to other countries, certainly Italy. In 1841 in Paris a starving Richard Wagner found work transcribing highlights of the score for piano and voice, flute quartet (with violin, viola, and cello), and other combinations of instruments.

In addition to the stirring drama and music that is both melodic and emotional, the first night ballet was particularly well received. It was choreographed by Jules-Joseph Perrot, whose wife Carlotta Grisi was the prima ballerina. She was acclaimed for the central pas de deux in Favorite with, according to biographer Herbert Weinstock, Marius Petipa (who, in St. Petersburg, would later create his own signature choreography for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, to name just two). The ballet in La favorite was so successful that Adolphe Adam (who had roomed with Donizetti in Paris) created the full length Romantic ballet Giselle for her and Lucien Petipa (brother of Marius), to choreography again by Perrot with Jean Coralli. Giselle premiered in Paris in April of 1841. Carlotta was cousin of the great singer Giulia Grisi, who created such spectacular bel canto roles as Adalgisa (in Bellini’s Norma), Elvira (in Bellini’s I Puritani), and Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.

Interesting, don’t you think?

JRS

Phenomenal points of entry

On the phenomenal points of entry in opera…

When? Often. Should be often, will be more often if you’re open to them. Especially if you seek them.

Where? Everywhere. Open your soul! Mindfully so.

To sleep…not an option. Per chance to dream…close.

Delimited by my title, the discourse here is on the phenomenal experience of opera and their entry points*

A phenomenal point of entry is the moment in an opera in which you and the performance connect emotionally, psychologically, perhaps even spiritually. The music, the voices, the drama, the performers, the sets and costumes, some mix of these, whatever, come together, maybe even all at once. The moment coalesces into a true Maslovian peak experience. You're now in the 'zone.'

Before a point of entry opens for you, the last act was ‘nice,’ at least that, one hopes, but now, as the lights go down for the next act, maybe you’re thinking about something you forgot to say to your friend during the intermission and actually a little peeved that you’ll have to hold that thought until some 40 minutes later. But if you’re thinking about this matter and how you're going to phrase it, and about your friend's reactions you’re not in the moment of the lights going down in front of you and the next act about to begin. The lights down should be a cue to get into the zone again, but only if you've been there before.

Then comes the ‘point.’ You can feel it. The point of entry is when the very portals of your aesthetic soul open. You are now receptive, exposed, emotionally raw, ‘at one’ with the moment. Everything is ‘on,’ everything tingles and glows. The voices, the singers' interactions on stage, the phrases in the orchestra, the body language of the conductor, the sets, the colors, even the shadows on the sets seem very charged. It’s electric. You shudder; you weep.

Hopefully you are not alone: you sense the sudden silence of those around you, as if no one is breathing. You can feel it. They, too, have become a part of your experience, as you have become a part of theirs. It is transpersonal. And the performers can sense it as well, a total communion, a perfect emotional/aesthetic storm.

Wagner wrote extensively about the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk and also about the practice of the art of transition from one receptive emotional state to the next. Suddenly you find yourself on the same page and experience what he’s talkin’ about, what he strove to create. Heinz Werner called the level of involvement syncretic, where one’s powers of rational abstraction go under, sort of like the daylight photoreceptors in your eye go under as the level of light dims to make way for the night receptors. These process neither sharp images nor color, hence at night things are more diffuse and shades of gray. The libretto for Tristan und Isolde is actually a psychological textbook for this sort of stuff. Names, individuality, honor and glory are all abstractions; the boundaries of the individual become diffuse in the Liebesnacht..

Once you've experienced a receptive zone it's easier to re-enter one during other performances. You can almost sense when the whole thing comes together. It's why people become fans of the opera. Sure reading about it, listening to it with half an ear while driving or while your kids are running around in and out can be pleasant, better than television, but the core of loving the art form is that it makes us crazy.

Not just opera of course: phenomenal points of entry, changes in receptivity for all sorts of experiences, are everywhere. Be open, remember.

It’s the point at which the novelist, the poet, a character in a film or in Shakespeare speaks directly to you and moves you deeply. Could be the best known parts, “To be or not to be,” but could be just a phrase or a gesture. It was always there in performance the other times, but it hits you hard this time in a way you hadn’t expected.

The snow at night in the dead of winter when your senses come alive

The snow at night in the dead of winter when your senses come alive

 It’s the fine cognac or single malt Scotch, or an elegant wine by the fireside that competes with the blowing snow outside. Friends dear to you enhance the moment with their stories of your collective pasts. And, during a pause, there and then you realize that Mahler's Fourth Symphony is all about Christmas and family.

It’s the point where you realize that you actually love the person who has been inching closer to you all evening, more than just ‘like’ her only as a good friend, a fellow student or a pleasant co-worker. or a regular at the coffee shop. It’s postural, it’s facial, it’s intonation, and so it’s not just ‘Hey, I really enjoyed chatting with you, perhaps we can see each other again maybe?’ But, without getting completely carried away, like saying the stuff Tristan and Isolde sing on and on about in Act II, which, digressing off the subject here, you’ll find when you read it, is quite different from the first three quarters of Act I when she’s so pissed off at him and he, the poor Held, is doing everything he can to keep his rational “Hey, I’m just the courier here” thing together. Nice try, Tris. Their meeting of eyes in Ireland, he lying there wounded, she, sword in hand, raised, about to finish him off, was their first point of entry. It must have been intense! It's why she's so mad in Act I.

It’s waking up on the muddy hillside at Woodstock looking out over the sea of people, to the morning maniac music of Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane as we greet the dawn together.

It’s making love in the sand dunes on a warm summer night while the stars are shooting over your…ocean. Or it’s the view across the bay at cocktails, the squawking of gulls silhouetted against the orange glow of the setting sun, the warm breeze, it’s all as much a part of the moment as the electricity of her presence, her fragrance, her smile and the promise of tomorrow. The sunset babe. Perfect.

As I said...perfect!

As I said...perfect!

It’s your wedding day, the middle of your honeymoon, the birth of your children, and their childhood. It's having cats to nap with. It is the surreal depth of emotion at the passing of your elders and their forever absence. All the music associated with them returns you to those moments together. It’s being in Italy with those you love. It's dancing at your daughter's wedding.

It's winning eleven National Championships in Women's NCAA Basketball.

It’s the taste of the salmon caught straight out of the loch for your dinner after the long drive through the chilly mists of Scotland.

Or it’s when the experience of les petites madeleines with warm tea ushers back memories of your childhood. (Actually it's his childhood: Marcel Proust, le grand Introspector General, says it all. It’s a long read to be sure, but worth almost every single page, at least a high percentage...Take the plunge!)

More than that, perfect storm again: your first opera of the new season is enhanced as much by the excitement of it all, the buzz, as by the warmth of the evening sun in your face as you walk across the Plaza in early fall, before the onset of the cruel New York winter when the same path feels similar to what one imagines Siberia to be like even on a nice day in January.

And so on.  And the moments compound across time into grand emotional schema which in turn color the present with anticipation.

Writing about the above or the below is nowhere near as magical or as profound as the experiences themselves. The act of writing with words about something that is experiential is the abstraction that pulls one from the moment.

Everything must have a beginning. Before a phenomenal point of entry opens, the opera, the symphony, the novel, the person standing near you may seem opaque, just sound, words, a stranger. Think about it. I’ll bet you, dear reader (I sound like Henry Fielding here) can remember back when an opera was just noise or, if your parents were watching one on TV or playing one loudly on the stereo, so loud you could hear it even outside and you’d be embarrassed to invite your friends to come back to the house that afternoon.

After all, what is opera anyway? Just a lot of older heavy folks in wigs and clunky costumes pretending to be teenagers on stage yelling at each other. Right? “It’s sort of nice, Mom, but I really don’t see the point…why do they have to scream like that?”

My count is easily over 150, but for each of the operas I deeply love I remember clearly the experiential path from when it seemed more or less like an opaque wall of sound to the point of entry, when, either accidentally or purposefully through study and preparation by sheer effort of will, the door of perception opened, leading eventually, though not always immediately, to a state of togetherness, depth of feeling and, yes, bliss (I sound like Joseph Campbell here). I should add that my friends think I'm just easily entertained. Some truth to that I suppose.

For me as a kid the path most often started with the first time I heard some of an opera on the radio, perhaps the Saturday matinee broadcast from the Met, though I was not usually at home on a Saturday afternoon, or, more likely, the Sunday afternoon broadcast of new opera recordings on WQXR or, once a year, the Bayreuth broadcasts on WBAI. Those really were the days my friends! Of course recordings were important. But always it was just sound at first, not yet the storm, and I didn’t understand the languages yet.

I quickly discovered that my aural perception was heightened by sound in the dark, without distraction, without competition from my other senses. Still today I sometimes close my eyes so as hear better, especially if I've seen the same cast and production earlier in the season.

It was just sound when, visiting friends, I heard for the first times the Immolation Scene, one with Eileen Farrell and the other with a ‘mature’ Kirsten Flagstad on a complete Götterdämmerung on LP (from Olso, as I recall). Okay. Loud but okay.

However nothing really could have prepared me for the impact of Siegfried’s Funeral March, leading to Birgit Nilsson’s Immolation Scene in performance at the Met in December of 1963. Shattering, overwhelming. It was my third opera in the house and though I’d heard Meistersinger only a few weeks earlier that season, the impact of the ultimate Ring score played and sung live hit me very hard. I think I was trembling for two full days afterward. My teenage nervous system was never the same; the cathexis had begun.

I, too, believe that some operas are easier to connect with than others. For the record, I’d NEVER recommend Götterdämmerung as a good ‘first time’ live opera. A so-called beginner’s opera is more ‘accessible’ and, think about it, therefore likely to be performed more frequently by virtue of the fact that neophytes and tourists will take up the remaining seats on any given evening.

But even a beginner’s opera like Aïda, La Bohème or Carmen (often referred to as the ABCs of Opera), each attractive at first hearing for different reasons, has its entry points for deeper levels of involvement beyond “that’s nice, let's chat at the next intermission.”

I always enjoyed, but never particularly cared too deeply at first for any of them. Oh sure, Luciano Pavarotti singing Rodolfo at the Met in 1977 was thrilling, you’d have to be made of stone not to respond to him, as was a young José Carreras, who sang in later performances that same season. But true love worked its magic with my point of entry, our point I should say, because my soon-to- be wife was with me: it was the experience of the new Franco Zeffirelli La Bohème with Teresa Stratas, Carreras, conducted by James Levine in January of 1982. I, she, they, all together and the snow gently falling outside through the intermission before the final act imprinted the evening forever. We went twice, saw the telecast twice. A few years later, January of 1988, same production, Pavarotti, Mirella Freni and Carlos Kleiber would recreate the magic for us. We and my mother-in-law wept. It snowed that night too, as I recall. None of us has been the same since.

When the doors of experience open wide, where it all comes together and we are ready, the performances, more satisfying aesthetically and emotionally, rank among the more memorable in a lifetime of seasons.

On the other hand, there is nothing more frustrating in terms of time, energy, and money, therefore nothing more 'expensive' than a performance that, for any number of reasons, not only denies aesthetic and emotional satisfaction but also insults our intelligence as seasoned, reasoned passionate opera lovers.

Some producers today don’t actually hear the music. Or they're colorblind. Or they haven’t read the text, or if they have, they don’t particularly care or think we care. Some don’t understand their characters or how real humans interact. Some modern producers seem to think that an ironic distance, even if it risks a disconnection through laughter, is the deconstructively correct response to a scene which, when directed by someone else who actually understands the music/text/psychology of it all, would normally evoke a deeper emotion. They seem to overlook the more likely truth that the majority in the audience is there for the experience the composer and librettist intended.

Updating or reconceiving the drama in opera can and has worked. I’m not drawing a line in the sand with my saber. But it is to say that if an opera company expects its paying customers to be mindful, intelligent, and emotionally responsive patrons, AND come back to see the production again and again, one should be mindful of these parameters.

Wagner’s exposition of the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk suggests that he knew exactly what he wanted as he created the great Ring Cycle, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal. How sad today we often get Gesamtschmutzwerk instead.

Enjoy. JRS

* The content limits I set for this posting are only fair. My in site. OperaMetro.com, I mean. Otherwise it could as well be called OftenMetro.comEverywhereMetro.com or MindfullySoMetro.com, either of which, I suppose, could work, but then, implicitly, there’d be too many paths of conscious experience to cover and, truth is, time and space matter in my world, as most likely they do in yours. One can’t do everything… though as I’d often point out to my dear old buddy Niki: a cat might try.

'In site' is intentional.

Carl Maria von Weber

Asides on Euryanthe and Carl Maria von Weber

Domenico Barbaia was the entrepreneur of the Kärntnerthortheater in Vienna in the early 1820s, as well as the Theater auf der Wieden; he was also in charge of other major opera houses in Italy, notably San Carlo in Naples and later La Scala in Milan. He was more or less responsible for Rossini’s meteoric rise to world recognition and, arguably, the very shape of his operas: Barbaia’s mistress, the great Isabella Colbran, first became Rossini’s mistress soon after his arrival in Naples in 1815 and later his wife, but, equally important, she was also the leading coloratura mezzo soprano for several of his operas of that period. Rossini wrote the roles of Desdemona and Armida, among others, specifically for Colbran’s voice.

On the lookout for any rising local talent (and a good box office), Barbaia commissioned Carl Maria von Weber to write an opera for Vienna in the same style as his highly successful Der Freischütz, which had already swept Eastern Europe like the forces unleashed in the Wolf Glen following its premiere in Berlin in 1821. A young, deeply impressionable Richard Wagner would shake in fear at the spirits and spells conjured by the orchestra. Weber jumped at the prospect: to make it big in Vienna was the dream all German composers had at one point or another in their careers.

Scenery for the Wolf's Glen, Act II, Scene II from The Victor Book of the Opera

Scenery for the Wolf's Glen, Act II, Scene II from The Victor Book of the Opera

Enter Helmina von Chézy: she and her husband had known Friedrich von Schlegel in Paris; Schlegel was one of the keystones of the German Romantic movement, mainly in literature. Helmina drank deeply from the well and continued to write after relocating to Dresden. Perhaps Weber assumed he’d benefit by hitching a ride on the coattails of a bona fide, not to say widely recognized Romantic author like Helmina von Chézy. Apparently she suggested other plots to him, but he found the story of the pure Euryanthe of Savoy, with its underlying ghostly theme, closer to his strengths. Helmina wrote the libretto. Weber apparently found her poetry suitable enough but her headstrong personality ‘unbearable.’

Der Freischütz had been criticized for its singspiel structure: set musical numbers with dialogue interspersed. As customary at least in France and Italy, serious operas were through-composed, meaning that the music continued from beginning to end. Hector Berlioz, who became ‘intoxicated’ with Weber’s music and who studied his scores assiduously, remedied this fault by composing recitatives so that Der Freischütz could premiere at the Opéra in Paris in 1841; Berlioz also orchestrated Weber’s The Invitation to the Dance and inserted it for a ballet, another requirement for the Opéra.

Point here: no doubt Weber felt considerable pressure to make his new grand opera in the same style as that of the serious French or Italian operas. Euryanthe is through composed and has at least a short ballet and a march or two. But Weber seems to have gotten seriously bogged down with the grand opera style. The heavy handed Euryanthe often times lumbers along, particularly as the soloists hash out the details of the plot. Most of the pleasing melodies in Euryanthe are given voice by the chorus and the secondary characters.

Relatively speaking, Der Freischütz zips through the story in the dialogue. Since the musical numbers are clearly defined with a beginning and an end, there is no need for transitions to link the lyrical sections with the more expository sections. Its vibrant musical numbers make Der Freischütz so exhilarating, the characters so sharply delineated and alive.

Lysiart, the villain in Euryanthe, is sort of a dud compared to Kaspar, the bad guy in Freischütz.  Truth is many operatic villains are relative duds compared to a well done Kaspar! Friedrich von Telramund in Wagner’s Lohengrin, to some extent modeled on Lysiart, is also weak, but his weakness is a part of the plot.

Euryanthe is less vulnerable, less placid, less trusting than Agathe, i.e., more like the strong women in Wagner, but Euryanthe’s solos are less appealing on first exposure. Agathe’s aria in Act II Leise, leise, fromme Weise! says it all about her character, as does her reverie in Act III Und ob die Wolken sie verhülle.

And then there is Ännchen, Agathe’s relative in Der Freischütz. As the soubrette, she provides a big smile and an optimistic burst of energy in character and in music, in contrast to Agathe’s mellow but worried nature. Their duet in the opening of Act II is a heavenly contrast of personalities.

Ännchen comes from a long line of soubrette characters in the early German operas. Her forebears are Blonde in Mozart’s Entführung, Papagena in Die Zauberflöte, and Marzellina in Beethoven’s Fidelio; and will later reappear as Adele in Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus. Mozart also includes the type in his Italian operas: Susanna in Figaro, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, and Despina in Cosí fan tutte, to name three. Poor Euryanthe has no such emotional relief. Nor do we.

No, Euryanthe has Eglantine, who feigns friendship, but who ultimately is mean and aggressive, in the mode of Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin. However Eglantine’s character is not as greatly developed. After all, Ortrud gets an entire act to reveal the various sides of her character with Friedrich, next with Elsa, and then with the King and the assembled citizens of Antwerp. Her clever nosing-up to Elsa is punctuated by the show-stopping outburst of rage, Entweihte Götter! Helft jetzt meiner Rache!

But more telling are the larger differences between Euryanthe and Lohengrin. Wagner was able to sustain dramatic tension over blocks of music whereas Weber hadn’t quite mastered the art of the long stretch. From Friedrich’s first accusations to Lohengrin’s entrance is about 25 minutes of uncomfortable uncertainty, desperate silence and waiting for Elsa’s champion; from Elsa’s entrance with her bridal procession to the end of Act II is just under 30 minutes, with the negative energy accumulating to the final curtain.

Without question Wagner was sensitive to the sound picture of Euryanthe: Based on its themes he composed a piece for wind instruments entitled Trauermusik for the return of Weber’s remains from London to Saxony in 1844 (Weber died in London in 1826, months shy of his 40th birthday). Wagner also remembered strains of the prelude to Act III of Euryanthe for his own prelude to Act III of Tristan und Isolde.

Sadly, Euryanthe was no match for the Italian operas of Rossini, which Barbaia also continued to import to Vienna. Even Wagner later complained that the Germans seemed to prefer Rossini to native composers. But Euryanthe was successful in Dresden; it traveled slowly through Europe and across the channel: At London’s Covent Garden in 1833 it starred the great Wilhelmina Schröder-Devrient in the title role. Wagner conducted Euryanthe at Magdeburg in the mid-1830s. He later chose Ms. Schröder-Devrient to create the roles of Adriano (in Rienzi), Senta (in Holländer) and Venus (in Tannhäuser).

Euryanthe arrived at the Metropolitan Opera on December 23, 1887 (U.S. and Met Premiere); the four performances sported the likes of Lilli Lehmann in the title role, Max Alvary as Adolar, Marianne Brandt as Eglantine, and Emil Fischer as the King, conducted by Anton Seidl. These singers were stalwarts of the first Ring operas in the USA. Curiously, an anonymous reviewer at the Met that winter praised Euryanthe as “one of the most tuneful works in the German repertory,” Perhaps by 1888 audiences at the Met where still reeling from their first introductions to the major Wagner operas.  “Endless melody” notwithstanding, after Tristan und Isolde or Siegfried practically everything written earlier in the German repertory seems more tuneful.

Six more performances of Euryanthe graced the Met’s stage during the 1914-1915 season, this time with Frieda Hempel and Johannes Sembach, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

My favorite book on Carl Maria von Weber is by John Warrack, published by The Macmillan Company in 1968. Several inexpensive used copies, mostly in ‘good library shape’ can be found at http://www.ABEbooks.com. Truth is, almost anything you seek can be found there, even if eventually through a wish list.

Also on this site, please find the review of the 2014 Bard College production of Euryanthe under Regional Opera Reviews as well as recommendations of recordings of Weber’s Operas on CD and DVD on this site under Opera Recordings.