Swans Commentary » swans.com August 23, 2010  



Current Offerings At Some European Opera Houses


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - August 23, 2010)   At the end of May of this year I made another trip to Europe to catch up on some operas that I had never seen before. These operas ranged from the Baroque (Handel) to the ultra modern (Franz Hummel). Sadly, too many of them in their presentations suffered from the "German Disease": the imposing of sets and costumes at variance with what the original composers and librettists imagined, desired, and executed. Would that this disease were actually confined to Germany; but it seems to have spread around the world. It's like painting mustaches on the Mona Lisa or rewriting famous novels with the characters set into other times and places different from their originals. The absurdity of this concept being applied to other art forms, of an original being replaced by various "improvements," seems obvious. But in opera the horrendousness of this operation seems to have escaped too many set and costume designers and directors. The late, great critic Henry Pleasants rose to the top when it came to skewering these nonsensicalities.


Munich and I Masnadieri


My trip started off pleasantly enough with a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's (1813-1901) I Masnadieri (1847), performed at the Theater am Gaertnerplatz in Munich. I hadn't been to this theater since 1971 when my wife and I saw a performance of Franz Lehar's (1870-1948) Paganini (1925) there. Verdi's opera was adapted by Eugene Scribe (1791-1861) from Friedrich Schiller's (1759-1805) play Die Raeuber (1781) ("The Bandits"). I Masnadieri was Verdi's first opera to get its world premiere outside of Italy, in London. The famous soprano Jenny Lind (1820-1887) was also to have taken part in the project. I Masnadieri is definitely a precursor to Il Trovatoreof 1849, the first of the trio of operas along with Rigoletto of 1851 and La Traviata of 1853, which established Verdi's worldwide fame and reputation.

I Masnadieri has the same plot setup and corresponding characters as in Il Trovatore. There is the hero, Carlo, who corresponds to Manrico; the heroine, Amalia, who pairs up with Leonora; and the villain, Francesco, Carlo's brother, a veritable Count di Luna; plus a chorus of robbers who equal the chorus of gypsies of the Anvil Chorus in the later opera. The hero sings aria after aria seeming to grab for that high C in Trovatore's "da quella pira" (that high C later interpolated to be sure but nowadays so expected) without ever quite reaching the latter aria's fervid excitement, but the way was shown. In this opera, as after Schiller's original play, the disturbing motif of an innocent woman's needing to be sacrificed by murder likewise appears: Carl Maria von Weber's (1786-1826) Euryanthe (1823) [See below], Verdi's Luisa Miller (1849), Robert Schumann's (1810-1856) Genoveva (1850), etc., all display this plot line. It shows us that honor killing of innocent women was not so far away in our recent European past so present as it still is today in certain Middle Eastern communities.

Jenny Lind worked her way into the next event as well. I attended in Vienna a concert at the Musikverein Brahmssaal in the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde featuring Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Archive director Otto Biba narrated enthusiastically; keyboardist Malcolm Bilson performed sensitively on two authentic Viennese pianos from the early 19th century, a Stein and a Boesendorfer in the Gesellschaft's collection; and a fine soprano sang a song cycle that Mendelssohn had put together for Jenny Lind after he had met her in Leipzig in 1845. Latest rumor has it that Mendelssohn being so enamored of Lind that her turning down his offer for them both to travel together to America (as well as perhaps for more intimate relationships) was another contributing factor, besides the death of his sister Fanny in 1847, to Felix's own death in that very year.

Being abandoned by one's loved lady as well as one's own sister worked its way likewise into the plot of my next opera, Zarathustra (2010), by the contemporary Franz Hummel (1939-) as I saw it presented in Regensburg. My research has yet to determine whether Franz is a descendant of Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), onetime student of Mozart, later successor to Haydn at Esterhazy, the composer of the famous Trumpet Concerto and the A Minor Piano Concerto said to be a model and inspiration for Chopin (1810-1849). The program notes of the present opera informed us that Zarathustra was today's Hummel's 17th (!) opera. This composer is not exactly an international household world so perhaps 17 is the charm.

As its name implies, (as in "Thus spake Zarathustra") this opera relates the life story of the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). It thus takes its place besides such operatic "biopics" ("bio-ops?") as the above-mentioned Lehar's Paganini, Hans Pfitzner's (1869-1949) Palestrina (1917), Paul Hindemith's (1895-1963) Mathis der Maler (1935-38) (the painter Matthias Gruenewald), and Die Harmonie der Welt (1957) (the astronomer Johannes Kepler), Paul Dessau's (1894-1979) Einstein (1971), etc.

Musically and dramatically Zarathustra reminds one of Alban Berg's (1885-1935) Wozzeck (1922) by being split into about 18 short scenes and of Berg's Lulu (1935) in its expressionistic style; of the American George Rochberg's (1918-2005) works, that composer who enjoyed poetasting musical styles of the past; and of Arnold Schoenberg's (1874-1951) Moses und Aron (1932) by also being a compelling drama in which a chorus screams at you seemingly nonstop till the evening ends.

But there are moments and vocal events that make Zarathustra seem like a more traditional opera: a mad scene, a love scene (plenty of soprano fireworks in that one!), a reminiscence scene, several ballet and pantomime scenes, etc. "Rochbergisms" would include quotations from Richard Wagner's (1813-1883) Tristan und Isolde (1859-65), and Die Meistersinger (1868), as well as from Johannes Brahms's (1833-1897) songs and piano works.

The plot tells Nietzsche's life story, his early friendships with fellow philosophers, with the composer Richard Wagner, the lady who turns down his offer of love, etc. When the anti-Christian philosopher is rejected by his social-climbing sister as well, the corner is turned: Nietzsche arrives at the madhouse. Amidst his white-coated fellow inmates and attendants the straitjacketed Nietzsche proclaims straight out to the audience that Gott is Tod! ("God is dead!") The opera ends here but Hummel explains to us in his notes that he had several more scenes to go. The director, however, refused his composer any more scenes. It seemed like a right decision to me!


Off to Freiberg to view a "potboiler"


A few seasons back I exchanged words, albeit unpublished, with New York music critic Anthony Tomasini over the worth or lack thereof of Franco Alfano's (1875-1954) opera Cyrano de Bergerac (1936). Cyrano had been revived at the Metropolitan Opera for Placido Domingo and the three chief critics took issue with the opera's quality. I, on the other hand, found it largely an excellent work. Alfano had been the composer whom the Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) heirs importuned to finish the latter's Turandot (1926) after Puccini's death, and for which, thanks to conductor Arturo Toscanini's (1867-1957) massive cuts of his proffered work, he had been roundly and condescendingly criticized till 1982, when his actual ending was rediscovered and performed. In the course of his review Tomasini referred to an earlier Alfano success, Risurrezione (1904) as a "potboiler." I, in turn, wondered how Tomasini had found the way to judge this rarely performed opera at all. So when Risurrezione turned up on my list of operas to explore I went for it to judge its "potboiling" quality.

The performance took place in Freiberg's Mittelsaechsisches Theater. Placards in the nearby streets announced this theater as the first civic theater in the world (1789) and that Weber's very first public opera took place there in 1800. (When he was only 14. As Wikipedia informs us: "Das stumme Waldmädchen (The silent forest maiden), which was produced at the Freiberg theatre.") Risurrezione is an opera in four acts after the novel of the same name by Leo Tolstoi (1828-1910). It was composed in 1904 and betrays in its music influences of the composer's fellow countryman, Puccini, as well as from the country of its setting, Russia. It tells the story of a country servant, seduced and abandoned by the lord of the house. The lord in his remorse tracks the servant down in Siberia and offers finally his love and marriage. But by this time the servant has found a new philosophical companion and turns the lord down, even though she once and perhaps still loves him.

By 1904 Alfano had Puccini's Manon Lescaut (1892) and La bohème (1896) as models. Whether he had as yet the recently composed Tosca (1900) to hear or study in Paris where he was then living I haven't been able to determine. At any rate the first act of Risurrezione reminds one of La bohème and the third act of Manon Lescaut. It was no wonder that Alfano was called upon to finish Turandot. His style resembles Puccini's own style better than do those of any of his contemporaries such as Mascagni (1863-1945), Leoncavallo (1857-1919), Cilea (1866-1950), Giordano (1867-1948), Montemezzi (1875-1952), etc.

Alfano's opera alternates lusty crowd scenes with intimate personal moments, soprano-tenor unison duets continually reaching for impassioned high notes, leading motives reminding one of earlier situations and feelings, use of ethnically recognizable folk tunes: in short everything that makes Puccini Puccini makes Alfano Alfano. There is even a climactically repeating motive borrowed straight from La bohème's "Mi chiamano Mimi." And just as Puccini quotes Japanese, American, and Chinese melodies to help him establish his operas' settings so too does Alfano present us with a melody in his Siberian scene that sounds uncannily in its Russianness like Prokofiev's (1891-1953) celebrated doublebass solo from his Lt. Kije film music of 1934. It took Risurrezione a few seasons to spread around the world in popularity but there were decades in the mid 20th century when it was performed more frequently than nowadays. Even the celebrated Mary Garden (1874-1967) sang the role of Katyusha, the betrayed servant.


Druids in spacesuits: an abnormal Norma


After years of performing the celebrated soprano aria "Casta diva" from the concertmaster's chair I was determined to finally see a full-length performance of the opera in which it occurs, Vincenzo Bellini's (1801-1835) Norma (1831) in Bremen. Little did I suspect that this was to be one of the most egregious examples of the German disease I have ever yet encountered.

The plot of Norma is set in Druidic England a few thousand years ago. There are several ramifications of the plot that don't quite fit. Norma's indiscretions with a Roman officer, Pollione, could only have occurred at a time when the Romans were in Britain, ca 200-400AD. But by this time the Druids were long gone; Stonehenge, their great monument, having been constructed some thousands of years previous. In addition the high priestess of the Druids was supposed to be a virgin. Despite this job description Norma has already had two children by Pollione before the opera begins. So how did this non-virgin become the high priestess? If she had the two children after her accession to the priestessdom wouldn't people have noticed her two pregnancies?

Bremen's stage was set by a white ascending pyramidal staircase in the style of the Ziegfeld Follies upon which were seen as chorus various Druids in space suits. That is: see-through helmets, pants with rows of circular white inner tubes of varying sizes, etc. Upon this staircase Norma actually carried out a human sacrifice by slicing a virgin's throat in front of the audience with plenty of bright red blood seen to be pouring down. I was disconcerted when this supposedly done-in virgin cheerily popped to her feet and ran off at the scene change.

At a later point in the plot the staircase was turned sideways and its panels opened up to reveal a modern apartment complete with TV set and two teenage children (the indiscretions) cavorting around. Both Norma and Adalgisa, her rival, took turns running in and out of this apartment and supervising these non-singing children.

Finally, when Norma and Pollione are forced to atone for their indiscretions by being burned at the stake it seemed that normal stake-food such as wood would not do. One of these space-suited Druids descended with a huge gasoline can to pour its contents over the victims so that they would more easily become flammable, which they soon did to end the opera.

God forbid that you might ever be forced to watch Bremen's Norma as I was!


The white cello case of Karlsruhe


The year 1823 was a good one for opera. Giaocchino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote the last of the Opera seria with his Semiramide set in ancient Babylon 3,000 years ago. And in that very year was born the German Romantic Opera when Weber presented his Euryanthe in Vienna. True, Weber had already caused a sensation with his Der Freischuetz in 1820. But the latter, with its spoken scenes, was still a Singspiel in the style of Mozart's ever-more-and-more-popular The Magic Flute. Euryanthe on the other hand was a true opera, sung from beginning to end. The Baroness Wilhelmine von Chezy (1783-1856) who supplied Weber with his libretto, has always had a bad rap for creating something confusing and incomprehensible for the composer to write music to, thereby leading to the work's unpopularity and lack of revivals. But it turns out that it was Weber himself who insisted on certain plot modifications supposedly confusing to audiences.

After years of performing the hair-raising overture to this masterpiece I was determined to finally see that mysteriously underperformed work as staged in Karlsruhe in southwest Germany near Stuttgart. It certainly lived up to my hopes and expectations. Weber continued to be Weber from curtain up to curtain down and that says it all. Passionate arias, ghostly visits, vivid hunting choruses and more served to entrance and excite this viewer from beginning to end.

But besides the excitements of the opera itself the work's historic importance in the operatic timeline is highly impressive. It's a story of knightly valor in the service of feminine honor and purity set in the medieval period some hundreds of years ago. And when that purity and honor fall into suspicion due to the machinations of some very disagreeable plotters the very life of the unfortunate lady is threatened with honor killing by the very hero himself. (See the discussion of honor killing above.) Thus this opera leads directly to Schumann's Genoveva and Wagner's Lohengrin (1850) since these operas too deal with this very topic in much the same way.

With two exceptions the sets and costumes fortunately were in authentic period style thus setting up no discordances between artwork and presentation. However, the German disease could not help but make its appearance even here. At times a gigantic eye stared balefully down at the proceedings but even worse there appeared and persisted as part of the props a white cello case. This white cello case, in its startling brightness amidst the otherwise subdued color schemes, with its feminine form constantly being fondled by the hero, obviously represented the hero's concept of Euryanthe, his betrothed's chastity, purity, and honor. And finally in the midst of the woods into which the threatened Euryanthe has fled and the hero has caught up with her, the cello case is for the first time in the opera opened, thus by its emptiness revealing Euryanthe's faithlessness. Besides the obviousness of the symbolism, the anachronism of that particular instrument constantly making its appearance could not help but jar upon even the most little-educated observer. The cello was not even invented for some hundreds of years after the opera's storyline.

But things turn out happily in the end, the evildoers are unmasked, (as in Lohengrin), and the lovers are united in true romantic fashion. If you're ever offered the opportunity, don't pass up Weber's resplendent and seldom seen masterwork, probably the greatest thing he ever wrote, Euryanthe.


(To be continued.)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published August 23, 2010