MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A Heroine of Singular Complexity: Verdi’s Timely, and Timeless, La Traviata

Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo) and Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo) and Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

(San Francisco Opera’s revival of La Traviata has just opened. Following is the full version of the essay I wrote for SFO’s program book.)

On New Year’s Day of 1853 — more than two weeks before the opening of Il Trovatore — Giuseppe Verdi wrote to one of his businessmen-friends about the challenges of finding suitable libretti: “I want subjects that are new, great, beautiful, varied, daring … and daring to an extreme degree, with new forms, etc., and at the same time [that are] capable of being set to music.”

The thirty-nine-year-old composer goes on to mention his latest project, a new opera for La Fenice in Venice. Based on La Dame aux Camélias, the recent stage sensation by Alexandre Dumas the Younger, Verdi writes, “[it] will probably be called La Traviata. A subject for our own age. Another composer would perhaps not have done it because of the costumes, the period, or a thousand other foolish scruples, but I did it with great pleasure. Everyone complained when I proposed putting a hunchback on the stage. Well, I wrote Rigoletto with great pleasure. The same with Macbeth.”

Even set against his bold treatments of Victor Hugo and Shakespeare, Verdi was fully aware that he was taking an unusual risk by adapting such contemporary material for the opera stage. It was one thing to lace his operas with political themes “topical” for Risorgimento Italy, but something else altogether to address contemporary sexual mores and issues of social class not as light-hearted comedy but as full-on tragedy.

Still, for us today, it’s admittedly hard to think of La Traviata as controversial. This nineteenth work in Verdi’s oeuvre is not just a box office guarantee, but for many the very definition of opera.

La Traviata: 2014 production at San Francisco Opera; ©Cory Weaver/SFO

La Traviata: 2014 production at San Francisco Opera; ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Over the past five years La Traviata has securely held its position as the opera most frequently performed around the world: Violetta even surpasses her fellow tubercular Parisian, La Bohème’s Mimì, as far as this measurement of popularity goes. Popular culture is replete with variations on both stories: for the (once) hip Bohemians of Rent there are the hallucinogenic colors and all-star remake of “Lady Marmalade” of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!

La Traviata was the opera chosen to launch the past season at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, marking Verdi’s bicentennial year. Any controversy that is generated comes from interpretive decisions: Dmitri Tcherniakov’s new production at La Scala, rather tamely set in the present, was theatrically booed by the loggionisti.

(Without doubt this was a reaction more vociferously negative than the fabled “fiasco” of the world premiere on March 6, 1853, which really came down to a mostly tepid response. Verdi himself stoked the legend of a disastrous opening-night reception, and the next staging a year later, also in Venice and with a slightly altered score, became an indisputable success.)

Nicole Cabell (Violetta) and Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Nicole Cabell (Violetta) and Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

The irony of this is rich, because with La Traviata Verdi intended for the first time to have an opera staged with contemporary dress, though in the event he was compelled to accede to the Venetian censor’s demand to shift the period back to “circa 1700” as a comfortably safe temporal buffer. (The censorship situation there, it should be noted, was considerably more liberal than that found in other leading Italian theaters; it was for the same house in Venice that Verdi had written Rigoletto two years before.)

In later revivals Verdi acquiesced to this historical distancing. As a consequence, by the time operagoers finally encountered stagings of Verdi’s original vision of a work that would actually be set in the era in which it was composed, La Traviata had already become a “period piece.”

One of the chief arguments against directorial updatings — that they betray the composer’s original “intentions” — would have to take into account this sort of compromise constantly imposed on Verdi in order to get the subjects he chose to set to music produced. (Even the title — usually translated “The Fallen Woman,” though more literally it means “The Woman Who Went Astray” — documents a compromise for the title Verdi originally wanted: Amore e Morte.)

But the issue of Traviata’s temporal setting represents the mere surface. The great Verdi expert Julian Budden rightly points out that the lofty language indulged in by Verdi’s ever-compliant, ever-bullied librettist for the project, Francesco Maria Piave (recently responsible for adapting a Victor Hugo to the libretto of Rigoletto) at times ventures far from Dumas, giving an overall impression that is old-fashioned and “strictly operatic.” As a result, “even if [Verdi] had had his way in 1853 the modern setting would have seemed purely metaphorical.”

Instead, the bold modernity of La Traviata — the sense that this is “a subject for our own age” — has to do with the challenges Verdi set himself to grapple with a new kind of psychological realism: a realism of intimate, internal emotions as opposed to the grand passions that burn in Traviata’s swashbuckling immediate predecessor, Il Trovatore.

At one point Verdi was in fact working on both operas concurrently, and the most identifiably Trovatore-like moments in the score of Traviata are precisely those in which Verdi adheres most obviously to the conventional forms of the cabaletta (the “flashy,” usually faster-paced final section of a lengthy aria or duet).

Traviata‘s psychological realism was prompted by the subject matter of high-class prostitution and intimate relationships projected against the screen of modern urban life, with its ugly realities and fears, in particular those of poverty, alienation, and disease. In La Traviata Verdi turns to the raw facts of everyday life as experienced by people we can recognize (however costumed or wigged).

Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

If we consider the realm of visual arts, the revolution represented by Édouard Manet in this regard still lies ahead: in 1863 he caused consternation by representing prostitution in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, which he followed later that year with the even more-controversial Olympia, updating the idealized and mythological image of Venus into a present-day courtesan.

Not until a pair of works that premiered in 1816 (both produced in Naples) — already within Verdi’s lifetime—did Italian opera even begin to represent death onstage for the first time: the long-lived Michele Carafa’s Gabriella di Vergy and Otello (when permitted by the censors) by his contemporary Gioachino Rossini.

And the terrifying details of death by tuberculosis had no operatic precedent. (The ill-fated Antonia from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann and both Leoncavallo’s and Puccini’s takes on La Bohème were still decades in the future.) “Poetic” dementia of the Lucia-di-Lammermoor brand is a far cry from the pathology of Violetta’s deathbed scene.

Our very first glimpse of the heroine onstage, in fact, specifies that she is consulting with Doctor Grenvil in the middle of her party. For a more-pertinent perspective on the contemporary and moral relevance of the situation depicted by Dumas and Verdi — in contrast to the tropes of Romantic individualism already established by Victor Hugo, even if his plays defied the censors — it might be useful to think of the original impact of plays like The Normal Heart and Angels in America in daring to channel the emotions caused by the AIDS crisis for the stage.

In The Literary Lorgnette, her study of the links between opera and literature in nineteenth-century Russia, Julie A. Buckler explores La Traviata’s legacy to the East, from the time it was first presented during the week of coronation festivities for Tsar Alexander II in 1856.

The opera, observes Buckler, “occupied a problematic social and aesthetic middle ground for Russian critics, depicting the demimonde [the term Dumas himself coined for the openly “secret life” of high-class sex workers] with an unnerving blend of Romantic and Realist convention.”

A new production by a Russian troupe in 1868 prompted an indignant review from the composer and critic Alexander Serov. Buckler quotes his objections to the “hospital-like” effect of the deathbed scene in particular. Serov fretted that in the future operas will be written in which “we will be taken, probably, into a clinic and made to be witnesses of amputations or the dissection of corpses!”

Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

This fear of the opera’s corporeality and representation of disease, as Buckler points out, is inevitably linked with anxiety about its representation of sexuality. In his first private encounter with Violetta, Alfredo warns that her lifestyle is killing her, that she needs to take better care of her health — and, surely enough, she begins to convalesce during their idyll in the country, far from the sensual stimulation of Paris. Violetta’s situation fuses the three major themes of sex, sickness, and money.

Susan Sontag handily characterizes this fusion in her influential Illness as Metaphor, emphasizing the connotations shared by frivolous spending (with its implications of sexual promiscuity) and “consumption,” the word commonly used for tuberculosis: “Early capitalism assumes the necessity of regulated spending, saving, accounting, discipline—an economy that depends on the rational limitation of desire. TB is described in images that sum up the negative behavior of nineteenth-century homo economicus: consumption; wasting; squandering of vitality.”

Much has been made of the immediate enthusiasm with which Verdi reacted to seeing Dumas’ play while he was staying in Paris in 1852, soon after it opened. Despite the pressures of getting Trovatore produced, Verdi simultaneously completed his score for Traviata at record speed. Of course it is an inherently dangerous prospect to attempt to tease out connections between an artist’s personal life and an autonomous work of art.

Alexandre Dumas, fils

Alexandre Dumas, fils

Budden belabors that point by ridiculing the commonplace assumption that Verdi responded so strongly to Violetta’s story because, by this time, he was cohabiting with Giuseppina Strepponi, a former singer (she created the role of Abigaille in Nabucco) regarded by the provincials in Busseto, where he lived, as a woman of “loose virtue” on account of her illegitimate children from previous affairs.

Yet Verdi hardly need have fictionalized Giuseppina as Violetta to be attracted to the themes involved in La Dame aux Camélia — and to the larger archetype of real or perceived “fallen women” he created in six operas between 1849 and 1853, as examined by the late Joseph Kerman in his essay “Verdi and the Undoing of Women.” These women, who “are condemned for their sexuality” and as a result “suffer or die,” “may have allowed the composer a way to reflect on the social and private implications of his affair.”

Writes Kerman: “Of course Verdi would never have dreamt of equating Strepponi with Violetta. The point is that Violetta allowed him to explore feelings of love, guilt, and suffering that he learned from his experience as Strepponi’s lover. Verdi explored similar feelings in other operas around the same time,” though Kerman adds that “the fallen woman syndrome retreats” from his work after Traviata as new concerns come to the foreground.

Nicole Cabell (Violetta) and Vladimir Stoyanov (Germont). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Nicole Cabell (Violetta) and Vladimir Stoyanov (Germont). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

The adultery represented in Stiffelio, the opera he wrote just before the experimental breakthrough of Rigoletto, in some ways can even be seen as a trial run for Traviata with its near-contemporary (early nineteenth-century) setting and focus on conflicting bourgeois values.

The source material for La Traviata — the play by Dumas, in turn adapted from his very first literary success, a novel published in 1848 — itself stands in a complicated relationship to the “raw data” of the author’s experience, even if some degree of both the novel’s and the play’s popularity involved the titillating glimpses they afforded “behind the scenes” into the illicit liaisons of well-to-do Parisian society.

Dumas’s novel, never out of print and recently published in a delightfully fresh new translation by Liesl Schillinger, includes nitty-gritty details about money and the day-to-day life of a high-class prostitute.

Naming his heroine Marguerite Gauthier, Dumas famously drew on his real-life affair with the already legendary courtesan Marie Duplessis but has long been castigated by feminists — as has La Traviata, to be sure — for co-opting a woman’s experience, distorting Marie Duplessis’s own autonomy through the filter of male desire and creating a hybrid “Madonna–whore” to fulfill the full spectrum of that desire. (Ironically, Dumas has been credited with coining the word “feminist” in a later pamphlet from 1872, L’Homme-Femme.)

In her recent biography of Duplessis, The Girl Who Loved Camellias, Julie Kavanagh traces the differences between the cultural icon of literature, stage, and screen and the real person who fled an abusive father and her native Normandy, arriving in Paris at the age of thirteen and transforming herself from an impoverished waif into an independent and sophisticated woman “determined to profit from Parisian culture and sample the same hedonistic pleasures available to men.”

But the treatment of Duplessis by Dumas was in its own way multifaceted, remarks Kavanagh. The novel was “part social document, part melodrama, both ahead of its time and rigidly conventional,” while the play remained an object of admiration by no less than Henry James. She quotes the latter’s verdict: “[Dumas] could see the end of one era and the beginning of another and join hands luxuriously with each.”

And what about Verdi’s treatment of the character originally inspired by Duplessis? Kavanagh finds that both Dumas and Verdi “softened her, capitulating to the romantic ideal that sought to exonerate and desexualize the fallen woman.” In Verdi’s opera, the “sordid” details of Violetta’s profession are essentially erased, her disease filling its place. She is in fact “etherealized”: “Un dì, felice, eterea” (“One day you appeared before me, happy, ethereal”) sings Alfredo in his early confession of love.

Indeed, the very first music Verdi gives us, in the Prelude — a musical portrait of Violetta — is a kind of sonic dematerialization. Divided violins suggest a sickly halo for this suffering saint. The faint similarity to Wagner’s “spiritual” string sound in the Prelude to Lohengrin (premiered in 1850, though not produced in Italy until 1871) only underscores the divergent aesthetics: increasingly, Wagner would turn to legend and myth as the vehicle for psychological truth, whereas here, for Verdi, the life we find around us serves that purpose.

Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

The Prelude as a whole captures the heroine’s ambiguity: a woman who has sacrificed for love but who has also been defined by her devotion to pleasure. Despite having to shift the period of the action, Verdi incorporates an unmistakable sense of place — of the modern city par excellence, Paris, an epicenter of pleasure — through the endlessly dancing gestures of his music.

Waltz time is the identifiable signature of La Traviata, essential to its unique tinta; later, in the third-act prelude, the “halo” music is supplemented by a haunting melody breathing the melodic spirit of Chopin.

Why has La Traviata remained so enduringly contemporary for all its Romantic sublimation of the characters’ sexuality? If the plot shows Violetta being victimized, “redeemed” by her sacrifice, it is ultimately the music Verdi imagined that mediates our experience of these events. As Kerman eloquently notes: “Music traces the response of the characters to the action — and operas, like plays, are not essentially about the vicissitudes of women (or men); operas are about their responses to those vicissitudes.”

Take, above all, the remarkable duet between Violetta and Giorgio Germont that is the hinge of the opera—a duet far more involved in its musical design and emotional range than the two we get in the outer acts for the pair of lovers. We might be chagrined by Violetta’s willingness to accede to the senior Germont’s demands, but the music lays bare the psychological intensity both characters experience at each stage of the argument.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Germont). ©Cory Weaver

Vladimir Stoyanov (Germont). ©Cory Weaver

The achievement is comparable in its way to the pivotal duet between Wotan and Fricka at the heart of Wagner’s Ring, though Germont emerges as more psychologically complex. “Germont is not the monster of patriarchal authority that he is in the play,” Kerman writes. “Music recasts him as a fellow human being who moves her by his own unhappiness.”

Overall, Verdi still found it necessary at this point in his career to balance the expectations represented by the conventional formalities of Italian opera with the unique musical needs of a particular dramatic situation.

That explains how La Traviata can seem to look ahead, particularly in its novelty of material and psychological acumen, while adhering to the mold of the Italian operatic tradition Verdi had inherited — though beautifully pared down and simplified to their essence for this admirably economical score.

Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo) and Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo) and Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

In their recent A History of Opera, Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker draw attention to this paradox, noting that “this outward conformity” to musical tradition disguises two key ways in which the opera “breaks new ground.” One is the series of musical cues — above all the waltz, with its implications of “social velocity and uncertainty” — that provide local color and root the drama in the modern urban world, whatever the visuals may have signaled.

More importantly, for Abbate and Parker, is the expansion from “exquisite solo expression” to the confrontation of the great duet in Act Two. The story, they write, “confronts some of the most vexed issues surrounding sexuality, not least whether women had the right to choose their own destinies. These were matters that preoccupied people at the time, but had never before been raised so overtly on the operatic stage.”

La Traviata, then, reminds us of the potential for opera to remain relevant, to innovate while staying true to the universal. And the depth and dimension of Verdi’s portrayal of Violetta, who stands apart in the composer’s canon as a heroine of singular complexity, will continue to pose an inexhaustible challenge to singers — and to fascinate audiences as long as opera is performed.

(c) 2014 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: essay, San Francisco Opera, Verdi

The Cursed Clown Returns: Seattle Opera’s Rigoletto

Marco Vratogna; photo by Elise Bakketun

Rigoletto (Marco Vratogna) at work in the court; photo by Elise Bakketun

It’s no surprise that general director Speight Jenkins opted to reprise Seattle Opera’s production of Rigoletto, staged by the American director Linda Brovsky, for his farewell season (which also coincides with the company’s 50th anniversary). Introduced a decade ago, this Rigoletto is of fine vintage and remains hands-down the most satisfying Verdi production I’ve seen at Seattle Opera (a close tie being the Falstaff directed by Peter Kazaras).

Seattle can hardly be called a Mecca for Regie opera in the usual sense in which that term is bandied about. But that doesn’t mean it’s a haven for boringly conservative “traditional” stagings. The company actually is director-centric in that it places a high premium on theatrical values: it prizes directors who can contribute a sensitively close reading so that musical and dramatic meanings enhance each other. (Jenkins is, after all, a Wagnerian, and a good deal of the success of Seattle’s Ring has hinged on director Stephen Wadsworth’s ability to do just that.)

Rigoletto is certainly an opera amenable to directorial transposition, and the concept applied by Brovsky and the design team is to set the swiftly moving plot in the lurid “court” of a Benito Mussolini-like duce in the 1930s, at the height of Italian fascism. Rigoletto serves as a kind of spy who can feed him information and of course also as his procurer. The decadence of the duce/Duke of Mantua and his cronies turns out to be an expression of their unchecked power — the way they “loosen up” when not arrogantly terrorizing the citizens into submission.

Marco Vratogna as Rigoletto, Nadine Sierra as Gilda, Sarah Larsen as Maddalena and Francesco Demuro as the Duke of Mantua; photo by Elise Bakketun

l to r: Marco Vratogna (Rigoletto), Nadine Sierra (Gilda), Sarah Larsen (Maddalena), Francesco Demuro (Duke of Mantua); photo by Elise Bakketun

Robert Dahlstrom’s sets and Thomas C. Hase’s lighting dramatically contrast the two poles of Rigoletto‘s world. The palace, thrumming with lust, is sleekly decked out with the spoils of art (a version of Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina sculpture serves as a prop littered with dirty champagne glasses), while the dimly lit, claustrophobic backstreets where the jester lives with his daughter Gilda are creeping with menace, an underworld that mirrors the cynical brutality of the rulers — only without their stylish veneer and classical trappings. The scenery of the last act, with its storm-swept cityscape across a river, is especially evocative. Marie Anne Chiment’s elegant gowns and chic suits make exceptionally eye-catching costumes.

All this provides more than a mere backdrop against which the familiar melodrama plays out. By anchoring what otherwise might seem a far-fetched series of unfortunate coincidences in a repulsive political and moral order, the fascist setting pushes buttons. When the nobleman Monterone reproaches the Duke for “seducing” his daughter — it’s clear that she’s been traumatized — Brovsky shows the old man wearing a yarmulke and dragged off to prison on the Duke’s orders: a voice of protest silenced by anti-Semitic thuggery. (Could this explain the family secrets Rigoletto keeps hidden from Gilda, including the mystery of her mother?)

Rigoletto will find himself in the same position as Monterone when he mourns the ruin of Gilda. The opera’s denouement is fueled by the jester’s plan for vengeance, his realistic version of the curse pronounced by Monterone. Marco Vratogna portrays an uncommonly sympathetic Rigoletto, making for a harrowing final scene. The problem is that he’s essentially too “nice” for the production’s milieu — particularly in the opera’s opening scene, where Verdi shows his cynical persona at work. The less-than-imposing curse delivered by Donovan Singletary’s Monterone should be the climactic focus of the scene, but the jester’s reaction barely registers.

Vratogna’s baritone admirably balances sturdiness and lyricism — it can be thrilling in a cabaletta wrap-up — but on opening night didn’t display the variety of colors essential to making this character vivid. You need to experience Rigoletto’s jabbing viciousness for his final sorrow to earn its full impact. Vratogna’s pivotal second-act solo lacked the differentiated phrasing Verdi calls for when Rigoletto, accustomed to his role as a performer, at last gives vent to his rage but then quickly changes tack to plead for his daughter.

Francesco Demuro as the playboy Duke; photo by Elise Bakketun

Francesco Demuro as the playboy Duke; photo by Elise Bakketun

A similar drawback applies to Francesco Demuro’s depiction of the Duke. A lyric tenor with a gorgeous command of legato, Demuro brings out the careless playboy side of the role quite convincingly. It’s just that he’s too suave, too effortlessly mellifluous to generate the effect of a feared, ruthless leader. In fact, the emotional depth Demuro gave to his richly sung “Ella fu mi rapita!” scene (the Duke’s most interesting solo and the one eclipsed by the popularity of his other two famous numbers) ends up jarring against the rest of his characterization. The Duke’s moment of interiority of course goes nowhere — and that’s one dramaturgical lapse Brovsky’s smart production doesn’t solve.

On the other hand, the really, really dark side of this Rigoletto is supplied in spades by Andrea Silvestrelli as the assassin-for-hire Sparafucile. His bass sounds as fathomless as an unlit, echoing cave, and Silvestrelli telegraphs noirish menace with just a flick and boot crush of his cigarette. As his sister and partner-in-crime Maddalena, Sarah Larsen channels a touch of Carmen, working out an entire character transformation in the course of her one scene.

Andrea Silvestrelli (Sparafucile); photo by Elise Bakketun

Andrea Silvestrelli (Sparafucile); photo by Elise Bakketun

But no one else matched the art of transition displayed by American soprano Nadine Sierra, making her Seattle Opera debut as Gilda. It’s not hard to discern what wowed the judges when they chose her as the youngest-ever winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Councils a few years ago. Sierra — and you’ll most definitely want to pay attention to her name — has an alluring, immediately identifiable voice that encompasses dark-hued deep notes as well as spectacularly spun, floating light notes at the very top of her range.

And that’s only a starting point for Sierra: her remarkable control allows her to venture an exciting variety in her phrasing. Her characterization complements this vocal richness: Sierra shows Gilda not as the innocent “tabula rasa” we usually see at first but as a loving daughter who already has desires of her own. The pain of her humiliation in the second act is so palpable it’s hard to watch. And her Gilda’s persistent attachment to the Duke isn’t a sentimental weakness but a desperate attempt to salvage some kind of meaning within the opera’s heartless environment. An especially effective touch is the shudder of terror she reveals even after she’s resolved to sacrifice herself.

Nadine Sierra; photo by Elise Bakketun

Nadine Sierra; photo by Elise Bakketun

Another indispensable contribution is made by conductor Riccardo Frizza, doing the best work I’ve heard from him. The orchestra itself wasn’t on quite the same level on opening night, and some sloppy intonation crept into the mix, but the musicians are clearly responsive to the conductor’s reading of the score. Frizza understands that these immortal melodies get their punch precisely from the contexts Verdi creates. As a milestone experiment on the way toward the mature Verdi, Rigoletto is all about restyling the conventions of Italian opera within a context of breathless, dramatically compelling momentum.

Frizza was able to stretch a phrase here and there, effortlessly accommodating the singers, but all the while maintaining the needed tension. He also has a terrific ear for the telling, sometimes ironic details Verdi uses to punctuate the lyrical flow. The first scene especially benefited from a snarling energy that supplied in sound what the staging meant to evoke. The chorus (prepared by John Keene) also used details to excellent effect in the two palace scenes, hinting at a whole spectrum of implicit back stories for the audience’s imagination to supply.

One especially memorable detail from Brovsky: her treatment of “La donna è mobile,” the opera’s most-famous (and ironic) number, as a kind of prop. Here it’s a pop hit that obviously gets a lot of play on the state radio. We hear it (i.e., the orchestra’s preliminaries) as the Duke tunes in the radio while he’s out slumming for sex, prompting him to sing it himself. It’s when Rigoletto hears the Duke’s version again, after his presumed stabbing, that the corpse’s identity becomes a chilling question.

Brovsky’s conceit is right in keeping with Verdi’s own “high concept” interpolation of the tune, which refuses the expected cadence but has the melody fade away. Verdi begins the tune with a false start, and it never really ends — the Duke is left unscathed, ready for his next conquest, leaving us with a catchy tune. Fascism, as Walter Benjamin famously pointed out, is the “aestheticization of politics.”

Seattle Opera’s production of Rigoletto runs through January 25. Tickets available here.

Review (C) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved

Filed under: review, Seattle Opera, Verdi

The Met’s Falstaff in HD

Jennifer Johnson Cano, Ambrogio Maestri, and Stephanie Blythe in the Met's Falstaff; photo by Ken Howard

Jennifer Johnson Cano, Ambrogio Maestri, and Stephanie Blythe in the Met’s Falstaff; photo by Ken Howard


Looking ahead to the Met’s Live in HD broadcast of its new Falstaff production tomorrow, I gathered a sampling of the critical responses:

[T]his was a perfectly respectable Falstaff. It just wasn’t the superb Falstaff the occasion called for….This level of micro control is put to the test in Falstaff. For this sparkling comedy based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Verdi wrote a quicksilver score that, when conducted precisely, feels improvisational. But when the conducting is off even by a hair, the music seems to lurch and halt like a car whose driver is riding the brakes. And that’s how Mr. Levine’s Falstaff felt: We reached our destination, but the ride was a little rough.

James Jorden/New York Observer

The opera turns on a dime between slapstick, romance, and poignancy, but the production, while good-natured, isn’t so agile….Falstaff is a James Levine signature piece and he brings a bounce and light to the music that was missing from the production (particularly in the last act). It’s quick, light, and transparent, but quiet when it needs to be. That being said, there were a few ensemble coordination issues in Act 1, particularly between the two sides of the stage (men on one side, women on the other). Things improved….

Ambrogio Maestri, however, was not a particularly interesting Falstaff. He’s got the big round voice for it, and the round shape, but while musically fine it was a one-dimensional characterization, little more than a teddy bear….As Alice Ford, Angela Meade put in a valiant effort, acting-wise, and this was by far the most animated performance I’ve seen from her….Nanetta’s music is a gift to any light soprano, and the Met has fortunately cast Lisette Oropesa, possibly the best singer they have in this Fach….On the low side, Stephanie Blythe as Mistress Quickly sounded like a very loud trombone. This role is her ideal Fach as well–she’s much better here than she is in higher Verdi stuff.

Micaela Baranello/Likely Impossibilities

At 6 foot 5 with his Falstaffian physique, Mr. Maestri certainly looks the part. A natural onstage, and surprisingly light on his feet, he makes Falstaff a charming rapscallion and sings with consummate Italianate style. …
Inspired by the librettist Arrigo Boito’s breezy adaptation of Shakespeare’s comic verse [only a fraction of Merry Wives is actually in verse (Ed.)], Verdi wrote music that responded minutely to the patterns and flow of the words. The music is like a gossamer fabric of sewn-together snippets. Mr. Levine revealed the continuity and structure of those snippets in this performance. The tempos he chose were sometimes restrained, allowing for enhanced richness and breathing room….But, there were shaky moments in the performance. “Falstaff” is an opera of ensembles, and some of these passages were a little scrappy….Over all, when it comes to theatrical flair, captivating costumes, stage antics and imagination, there are not many shows on Broadway to rival the Met’s new “Falstaff.”

Anthony Tommasini/New York Times

[W]hile conventional productions might assume Verdi and his librettist Boito created a silly, self-deluded shell of a knight descending to society’s dregs, Carsen shows Falstaff in upper-echelon men’s clubs and someone to be ridiculed only at your own risk….Carsen went far to solve the central problem that makes the opera more respected than loved. For all its distilled, compact music, Verdi’s final opera often seems to be an enshrinement of buffoonery while the soprano/tenor love interest have far-less-than-usual stage time and everybody else has a high old time practicing the un-exalted human pastimes of humiliation and revenge….

Now for the reservations: The clear narrative lines that are typical of Carsen broke down a bit in larger crowd scenes. The bigger problem is that, aside from the coup-de-theatre kitchen and and the nighttime scene in the final act, Paul Steinberg’s sets are surprisingly plain with a lot of bourgeois wood paneling.

David Patrick Stearns/WQXR/Operavore

The Met’s much-loved 1964 Franco Zeffirelli production, which dated back to the old 39th Street house, will be missed, but Robert Carsen’s new take on Verdi’s final opera is a true delight….Carsen sets his version in late-1950s London, well after the war but just before the Mod revolution. It was a time when existing social systems were crumbling, and Carsen has great fun contrasting the twilight of aristocracy with the rise of the middle class.

Eric Myers/New York Classical Review

Carsen is known for his trademark motif of theater-within-theater for most of his productions. He manages to ignore it for most of the work but manages to get it in during the final choral fugue….This “Falstaff” is one of the finest productions of general manager Peter Gelb’s tenure and the perfect way to end the 2013 bicentennial celebration of Verdi’s immortal genius.

David Salazar/Latinos Post

Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, Verdi

A Tragedian Turned Comic Master

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff


The Met’s new production of Falstaff, opening tonight, replaces the long-standing Zeffirelli production with a staging directed by Robert Carsten – and it brings James Levine back to the pit for what he has declared to be his favorite Verdi opera.

I was fortunate to have another opportunity to write about this crowning glory of Verdi’s career. Here’s my essay for the Met’s program:

“The great dream has come true,” wrote Arrigo Boito, the librettist of Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, shortly before the former opera was unveiled in 1887. Otello‘s premiere was an internationally feted success, bringing to fruition a proposal that had started eight years earlier when it was tentatively broached over the course of a dinner conversation.

Boito refers to Verdi’s dream of creating a new opera based on his beloved Shakespeare, but he might just as well have marveled at the feat of luring the aging composer out of his self-proclaimed retirement from the opera stage. Otello didn’t just represent a late-career comeback: it marked the summit of Verdi’s achievement as the greatest of Italy’s operatic tragedians.

Verdi had become so identified with the tragic genre that Otello must have seemed the perfect culmination of his life’s work. Yet Boito was determined, as he put it in a letter to a friend, “to make that bronze colossus resound one more time.” Verdi, for his part, had long harbored a desire to prove that the scope of his art extended beyond the dramas of gloomy passion with which he had built his reputation.

continue reading (starts on p. 12)

Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, program notes, Verdi

Will Get Fooled Again: Verdi’s Humanist Farewell

Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi

At least we know Giuseppe Verdi was a Libra. But no one knows for sure whether his actual birthday 200 years ago was October 9 or 10 — and why shouldn’t he get two birthdays in this year celebrating his legacy?

For my own little tribute, here’s an essay I just wrote for Los Angeles Opera’s upcoming production of Falstaff:

Whoever laughs last, laughs best—or, in the more elegant formulation by Arrigo Boito, author of Falstaff’s libretto: Ma ride ben chi ride / La risata finale. And in more than half a century of writing for the stage, Verdi has the last laugh with the ultimate joke: a fugue, that emblem of a fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned, academic, Teutonic sensibility, a virtual non-sequitur vis-à-vis the Italian operatic tradition he had inherited.

Yet the fugal capstone to Falstaff is a perfect and ingenious choice, theatrically and musically. After Sir John has been punked and had his drubbings, he’s the one who leads off the fugal chain reaction, as the entire ensemble joins to celebrate our shared humanity. Itamar Moses’ 2005 play Bach at Leipzig attempted to dramatize the fugue’s inherent theatricality—the way it wrests reconciliation from entanglement—but Verdi’s merry pranksters buoyantly sail free of any regrets, proving the power of his art to set the world right (at least for the illusory moments until the house lights come back on). Jester and jest become one. The rigorous form morphs into a bubbly champagne, ending with the orchestra’s zippy final chords. If Verdi alludes to the choral setting-things-straight culmination of Don Giovanni, he also seems to hint at the clear blue skies of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony—albeit his is a punch-drunk Jove.

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Filed under: opera, Verdi

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