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Blog entries posted during 2012

Tickets for “The Festival Play of Daniel” Available January 1

LA Opera’s Education and Community Programs department is proud to present two performances of The Festival Play of Daniel at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Friday, March 16, and Saturday, March 17, at 7:30 pm. As a special gift to the community, these performances are free to the public. However, advance tickets are required for admission. (Note: there will be a $1 handling fee for tickets reserved by phone or online and a four-ticket limit per household, subject to availability.) The Festival Play of Daniel will be conducted by Richard Seaver Music Director James Conlon and will bring several hundred volunteer and professional performers together to tell the story of the courageous Old Testament prophet Daniel.

The Festival Play of Daniel replaces a previously announced world premiere production of Jonah and the Whale by composer Alexander Prior and librettist Velina Hasu Houston, which has been postponed until 2014 in order to give the creators more time to complete their work.

Tickets can be reserved online by clicking here or by phone at (213) 972-8001 beginning on Wednesday, February 1, at 10am.


The story of “Dulce Rosa”


 
Based on the short story “Una Venganza” by Chilean author Isabel Allende (above), Dulce Rosa is a tale of romance and ruin, of revenge and redemption. In a South American country, in the early 1950s, times are troubled. Former Senator Orellano is the only leader who could unite the land, but he intends to stay in retirement, on his country estate, with his beloved daughter Rosa. In the jungle, in the Capital City, plots are woven, alliances are forged, and the fate of the House of Orellano is sealed. Led by the notorious outlaw, Tadeo Cespedes, the raiders attack at night. Wounded, Orellano comes to kill Rosa, who is hidden in the family chapel, because he knows what they will do to her. As does she. But Rosa is a true Orellano, her father’s daughter. She pleads for her life. “I can take it, whatever happens. Let me live, and I will avenge you.” Orellano dies as the raiders burst in. Tadeo saves Rosa from his men. But only for himself.
 
From the depths of her despair, as she recovers from her ordeal, Rosa summons the strength to step into her father’s shoes. In the Capital City, at the side of the new President whom he helped to power, General Tadeo Cespedes cannot forget the girl in the chapel, and what he did to her. Rosa haunts his waking hours, his sleepless nights.
 
Over the months in which the Orellano hacienda re-emerges from its ashes, Rosa calls Tadeo to her. He has no choice but to return to her for the merciful bullet. But Rosa’s obsession with Tadeo has changed her. She discovers that she does not hate him. The unthinkable has happened. Appalled, uncomprehending why God has punished her in this way, Rosa comes to see the truth, when she realizes with sudden clarity that she has forgiven the unforgivable. Her love for Tadeo is not a punishment for her pride, but a reward for her suffering. Fate, though, is implacable, and death takes Rosa from Tadeo forever, before they can even begin to understand the wholly unexpected happiness that lies before them.


LA Opera and Broad Stage to Co-Produce World Premiere of Dulce Rosa

Preliminary set design for "Dulce Rosa" by Yael Pardess

LA Opera and The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage are joining forces to co-produce the world premiere of Dulce Rosa, a new opera by composer Lee Holdridge and librettist Richard Sparks. Based on the Isabel Allende short story “Una Venganza” (An Act of Vengeance), Dulce Rose will be conducted by Plácido Domingo and will have six performances at The Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, from May 19 through June 9, 2013.

Dulce Rosa relates the aftermath of a violent political uprising, as a young woman plans her revenge against a merciless attacker. The title role will be performed by Uruguayan soprano María Eugenia Antúnez. The production will feature the LA Opera Chorus and Orchestra. The media art director and set designer is Yael Pardess, with costumes by Durinda Wood, lighting by Anne Militello and projections by Jenny Okun.

Dulce Rosa will be the inaugural presentation of LA Opera Off Grand, a new initiative developed to bring performances to a wider geographical area, increase audience diversity, and expand the range of experiences for the Company’s existing attendees. Many LA Opera Off Grand performances will be in neighborhoods that are not easily accessible to downtown Los Angeles; others will expand the traditional opera experience by experimenting with performance spaces, creative artists new to the genre and a variety of musical styles.
Tickets range in price from $20 to $150 and will be available in The Broad Stage’s “create-your own” subscription packages beginning June 25. Single tickets to Dulce Rosa will be available for sale to the public beginning July 30. For ticket information, please call The Broad Stage box office at 310-434-3200 or visit www.TheBroadStage.com.


To Youth: With Memories, Regrets, and Love

By Mary Jane Matz
 
At the end of January in 1893, Giacomo Puccini, then 34 years old, was still a struggling composer, still hoping for a hit. Neither of his first two operas had become popular, but he had hopes for the future; and they were fully realized a few days later with the triumphant world premiere of Manon Lescaut. It made him famous almost overnight, boosted by the popularity of opera at the time. Within a week, Puccini was planning La Bohème.
 
The Source of the Opera
For the third time, Puccini chose a French story as his source, which is not surprising, since he always had an international eye and a broad point of view. After all, he traveled extensively all over Europe and visited South America once and New York twice and took side trips to places like Malta and Egypt! As for his operas, most were not based on Italian sources. In addition to his first three “French” works, he used French subjects for Tosca, taken from Victorien Sardou’s melodrama, and Il Tabarro, from a play about bargemen on the Seine. With its strong Grand Guignol underpinnings, it exuded French local color. From the American cultural scene he used plays by David Belasco, a Broadway producer who wrote Madame Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West. It became Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. Next came La Rondine, with its origins in Vienna. Beyond all this, Puccini admired Richard Wagner and actually saw Wagner operas in Bayreuth. In sum, he was never a purely “Italian” composer. That was something the Italian critics could never forgive, so they often railed at him for not being “national” enough and not hewing to Italian practice. None of the criticism mattered, for early and late Puccini paid no attention at all.
 
So it was that in 1893 he became interested in Henri Mürger’s popular Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, a series of little stories about Latin Quarter artists, their poverty, and their loves. Having first published these very personal accounts in installments in a French periodical, Mürger had then made them into a play and a novel. Puccini used both for his opera.
 
Creating La BohèmeTo transform this French material into a libretto, the composer turned first to Luigi Illica, one of several men who had collaborated with him in the problem-ridden development of Manon Lescaut. It had been nothing short of chaotic, with six or even seven people writing a text, and Puccini rejecting one act, one scene or one line after another. In the end the libretto of Manon Lescaut had to be published with no one listed as its author. But the hot-headed Illica could meet Puccini head-to-head, however demanding the composer might be.
 
From 1893 to 1896, Illica worked steadily on the project with the composer and with Giulio Ricordi, the powerful publisher who was Puccini’s mentor and sponsor. The first step: Illica wrote a scenario and then a drama based on the original play and novel. The poetic lines (required at that time by operatic convention) were then created by a revered poet-playwright, Giuseppe Giacosa, with Puccini and Ricordi adding their contributions to the text. This “four-man team” met often to discuss the work, batting around ideas and introducing new characters or new scenes. They also removed things that did not work, and Puccini even cut out one whole act! It was a process, not a single, lightning-flash act of creation. This same team of Puccini, Illica, Giacosa, and Ricordi later created Tosca and Madama Butterfly, which later joined La Bohème to make up the “trilogy” of Puccini’s most popular operas.
 
Puccini’s Bohemian Life in Milan and Tuscany
La Bohème became a window on the Left Bank culture of Paris, but it also opened windows on Puccini’s own life-experience. First it reflected what he had survived as an impoverished composer in the 1880s and early 1890s. “Miseria!” he would gripe in letters to his sister. So in the libretto, when the poet Rodolfo described the wretched conditions in his flat, Puccini could write about something he had actually lived through.
 
For years he rented cheap furnished rooms or tiny apartments, most in desperate condition. He pawned personal things, then had to ask his sister for money to get them out of hock. In the freezing winters of Northern Italy, he often had no heat. Nor was there enough money for a decent meal. In fact, we know what he ate: a couple of helpings of soup, with bread, cheese and wine; a simple plate of Tuscan beans and onions with bread and wine; or fried eggs, cooked on a spirit stove that he perched on top of his upright piano. Once when friends dropped in, Puccini and his mistress and his brother (all crowded into two or three rooms) had to sell and trade household items to scrape together enough money for grungy meat to make a stew!
 
Nor was all that miseria left behind in Milan. Parts of Manon Lescaut and most of La Bohème were written in Puccini’s bare-bones lodgings in Torre del Lago, a raw and primitive fishing village on a lake in Tuscany. On the day he moved in, all his possessions could fit on a single donkey-cart; and his mistress said, “We don’t have enough to eat!”

  Among the fishermen and their families in Torre del Lago were several young artists who soon became Puccini’s friends. Together they hunted, fished, drank, ate, staged mock heroic battles, dressed up in sheets and acted like ancient Romans, and played cards — tresette and scopa and briscola. Their refuge and sanctuary was a wooden hut roofed with dried reeds from the lake. They called it their Club la Bohème, and their antics and shared life certainly provided Puccini with material for his depiction of the artists in La Bohème. Three of these men were even identified with three of the principal male characters in the opera.
 
One of them, Ferruccio Pagni, who was closer to Puccini than the others, wrote later that when Puccini finished La Bohème, they were all together, for he often composed at night, with people talking or playing cards as he worked. On that occasion, Pagni said, Puccini was “just writing the last bars [of the opera]” while he and their cronies played cards nearby.

  “Be quiet, boys!” Puccini said. “I have finished!” Pagni and the others got up from the table and went over to the piano. “Now I’ll let you hear it. . . . This ending is good.” And he started to play Mimì’s last lines: “Sono andati.” As he played on and sang the words, Pagni said, they all had a sensation of “the eternal substance: Sorrow.” At the end, they were all crying.
 
So Puccini never had to invent any “Bohemian life.” These descriptions of his years in Milan and Torre del Lago come from real letters — Puccini’s own and those of friends and relatives. This means that La Bohème, for all its romantic haze, is basically a realistic work, a snapshot of Puccini’s early years. Nor did he ever forget those terrible days. Many years later, when he was the richest and most famous opera composer in the world, he remembered one of those plain meals, and he remembered it when he was in middle of the Atlantic Ocean, sitting in his private parlor in the Imperial Suite of a luxury liner. In a flash it all came back to him, and he longed to smell beef stewing on a rickety stove, as it had in those long-gone days.
 
The World Premiere of La Bohème
Far, far from being a series of star-turns, this is an ensemble opera about simple people who are almost destitute. As the first act opens we meet the four Latin Quarter artists: Rodolfo, a poet and journalist; Marcello, a painter; Schaunard, a musician; and Colline, a literary man and philosopher. They live from hand to mouth. The two women of the plot are Mimì, a frail girl who embroiders artificial flowers for a living, and Musetta, who sings for her living in cafes. When she is not with Marcello, Musetta trolls for elderly lovers; but in Act III, when she and Marcello are living together in an inn near the gates of Paris, they are broke, so she gives singing lessons to people who stay there, and Marcello “pays” for their room by painting murals on the outside wall.
 
These, then, are the people Puccini dearly loved. As he once said, he cared most about “little people with big sorrows.” Yet La Bohème is a full-scale opera, not a short verismo work about Sicilian peasants (as in Cavalleria Rusticana) or itinerant actors traveling in Calabria (as in Pagliacci). It would also be hard to imagine anything farther removed from the grandeur of the earlier operas of the 1800s: Donizetti’s shows about English royalty and nobility, for example; or Verdi’s Don Carlos, set in the court of Philip II of Spain, or Aida, set in the Egypt of the pharaohs. That is why La Bohème transformed its whole field, its genre.
 
The world premiere of La Bohème took place in the Teatro Regio in Turin on February 1, 1896, with young Arturo Toscanini conducting. Its cast was solid professionals, not queens and kings of the stage, so they were cut to the proper dimensions for this opera. In the end, its success swept everything else aside. It was everything Puccini had hoped for: a composer’s dream, for La Bohème is his opera, utterly and forever his.
 
Mary Jane Matz is the author of numerous books including Puccini: A Biography (2002) and Verdi: A Biography (1996). She is a frequent contributor to Opera News and many other publications.


LA Opera and Broad Stage to Co-Produce World Premiere of Dulce Rosa

Preliminary set design for "Dulce Rosa" by Yael Pardess

LA Opera and The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage are joining forces to co-produce the world premiere of Dulce Rosa, a new opera by composer Lee Holdridge and librettist Richard Sparks. Based on the Isabel Allende short story “Una Venganza” (An Act of Vengeance), Dulce Rose will be conducted by Plácido Domingo and will have six performances at The Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, from May 19 through June 9, 2013.

Dulce Rosa relates the aftermath of a violent political uprising, as a young woman plans her revenge against a merciless attacker. The title role will be performed by Uruguayan soprano María Eugenia Antúnez. The production will feature the LA Opera Chorus and Orchestra. The media art director and set designer is Yael Pardess, with costumes by Durinda Wood, lighting by Anne Militello and projections by Jenny Okun.

Dulce Rosa will be the inaugural presentation of LA Opera Off Grand, a new initiative developed to bring performances to a wider geographical area, increase audience diversity, and expand the range of experiences for the Company’s existing attendees. Many LA Opera Off Grand performances will be in neighborhoods that are not easily accessible to downtown Los Angeles; others will expand the traditional opera experience by experimenting with performance spaces, creative artists new to the genre and a variety of musical styles.
Tickets range in price from $20 to $150 and will be available in The Broad Stage’s “create-your own” subscription packages beginning June 25. Single tickets to Dulce Rosa will be available for sale to the public beginning July 30. For ticket information, please call The Broad Stage box office at 310-434-3200 or visit www.TheBroadStage.com.


To Youth: With Memories, Regrets, And Love

By Mary Jane Matz
 
At the end of January in 1893, Giacomo Puccini, then 34 years old, was still a struggling composer, still hoping for a hit. Neither of his first two operas had become popular, but he had hopes for the future; and they were fully realized a few days later with the triumphant world premiere of Manon Lescaut. It made him famous almost overnight, boosted by the popularity of opera at the time. Within a week, Puccini was planning La Bohème.
 
The Source of the Opera
For the third time, Puccini chose a French story as his source, which is not surprising, since he always had an international eye and a broad point of view. After all, he traveled extensively all over Europe and visited South America once and New York twice and took side trips to places like Malta and Egypt! As for his operas, most were not based on Italian sources. In addition to his first three “French” works, he used French subjects for Tosca, taken from Victorien Sardou’s melodrama, and Il Tabarro, from a play about bargemen on the Seine. With its strong Grand Guignol underpinnings, it exuded French local color. From the American cultural scene he used plays by David Belasco, a Broadway producer who wrote Madame Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West. It became Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. Next came La Rondine, with its origins in Vienna. Beyond all this, Puccini admired Richard Wagner and actually saw Wagner operas in Bayreuth. In sum, he was never a purely “Italian” composer. That was something the Italian critics could never forgive, so they often railed at him for not being “national” enough and not hewing to Italian practice. None of the criticism mattered, for early and late Puccini paid no attention at all.
 
So it was that in 1893 he became interested in Henri Mürger’s popular Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, a series of little stories about Latin Quarter artists, their poverty, and their loves. Having first published these very personal accounts in installments in a French periodical, Mürger had then made them into a play and a novel. Puccini used both for his opera.
 
Creating La BohèmeTo transform this French material into a libretto, the composer turned first to Luigi Illica, one of several men who had collaborated with him in the problem-ridden development of Manon Lescaut. It had been nothing short of chaotic, with six or even seven people writing a text, and Puccini rejecting one act, one scene or one line after another. In the end the libretto of Manon Lescaut had to be published with no one listed as its author. But the hot-headed Illica could meet Puccini head-to-head, however demanding the composer might be.
 
From 1893 to 1896, Illica worked steadily on the project with the composer and with Giulio Ricordi, the powerful publisher who was Puccini’s mentor and sponsor. The first step: Illica wrote a scenario and then a drama based on the original play and novel. The poetic lines (required at that time by operatic convention) were then created by a revered poet-playwright, Giuseppe Giacosa, with Puccini and Ricordi adding their contributions to the text. This “four-man team” met often to discuss the work, batting around ideas and introducing new characters or new scenes. They also removed things that did not work, and Puccini even cut out one whole act! It was a process, not a single, lightning-flash act of creation. This same team of Puccini, Illica, Giacosa, and Ricordi later created Tosca and Madama Butterfly, which later joined La Bohème to make up the “trilogy” of Puccini’s most popular operas.
 
Puccini’s Bohemian Life in Milan and Tuscany
La Bohème became a window on the Left Bank culture of Paris, but it also opened windows on Puccini’s own life-experience. First it reflected what he had survived as an impoverished composer in the 1880s and early 1890s. “Miseria!” he would gripe in letters to his sister. So in the libretto, when the poet Rodolfo described the wretched conditions in his flat, Puccini could write about something he had actually lived through.
 
For years he rented cheap furnished rooms or tiny apartments, most in desperate condition. He pawned personal things, then had to ask his sister for money to get them out of hock. In the freezing winters of Northern Italy, he often had no heat. Nor was there enough money for a decent meal. In fact, we know what he ate: a couple of helpings of soup, with bread, cheese and wine; a simple plate of Tuscan beans and onions with bread and wine; or fried eggs, cooked on a spirit stove that he perched on top of his upright piano. Once when friends dropped in, Puccini and his mistress and his brother (all crowded into two or three rooms) had to sell and trade household items to scrape together enough money for grungy meat to make a stew!
 
Nor was all that miseria left behind in Milan. Parts of Manon Lescaut and most of La Bohème were written in Puccini’s bare-bones lodgings in Torre del Lago, a raw and primitive fishing village on a lake in Tuscany. On the day he moved in, all his possessions could fit on a single donkey-cart; and his mistress said, “We don’t have enough to eat!”

  Among the fishermen and their families in Torre del Lago were several young artists who soon became Puccini’s friends. Together they hunted, fished, drank, ate, staged mock heroic battles, dressed up in sheets and acted like ancient Romans, and played cards — tresette and scopa and briscola. Their refuge and sanctuary was a wooden hut roofed with dried reeds from the lake. They called it their Club la Bohème, and their antics and shared life certainly provided Puccini with material for his depiction of the artists in La Bohème. Three of these men were even identified with three of the principal male characters in the opera.
 
One of them, Ferruccio Pagni, who was closer to Puccini than the others, wrote later that when Puccini finished La Bohème, they were all together, for he often composed at night, with people talking or playing cards as he worked. On that occasion, Pagni said, Puccini was “just writing the last bars [of the opera]” while he and their cronies played cards nearby.

  “Be quiet, boys!” Puccini said. “I have finished!” Pagni and the others got up from the table and went over to the piano. “Now I’ll let you hear it. . . . This ending is good.” And he started to play Mimì’s last lines: “Sono andati.” As he played on and sang the words, Pagni said, they all had a sensation of “the eternal substance: Sorrow.” At the end, they were all crying.
 
So Puccini never had to invent any “Bohemian life.” These descriptions of his years in Milan and Torre del Lago come from real letters — Puccini’s own and those of friends and relatives. This means that La Bohème, for all its romantic haze, is basically a realistic work, a snapshot of Puccini’s early years. Nor did he ever forget those terrible days. Many years later, when he was the richest and most famous opera composer in the world, he remembered one of those plain meals, and he remembered it when he was in middle of the Atlantic Ocean, sitting in his private parlor in the Imperial Suite of a luxury liner. In a flash it all came back to him, and he longed to smell beef stewing on a rickety stove, as it had in those long-gone days.
 
The World Premiere of La Bohème
Far, far from being a series of star-turns, this is an ensemble opera about simple people who are almost destitute. As the first act opens we meet the four Latin Quarter artists: Rodolfo, a poet and journalist; Marcello, a painter; Schaunard, a musician; and Colline, a literary man and philosopher. They live from hand to mouth. The two women of the plot are Mimì, a frail girl who embroiders artificial flowers for a living, and Musetta, who sings for her living in cafes. When she is not with Marcello, Musetta trolls for elderly lovers; but in Act III, when she and Marcello are living together in an inn near the gates of Paris, they are broke, so she gives singing lessons to people who stay there, and Marcello “pays” for their room by painting murals on the outside wall.
 
These, then, are the people Puccini dearly loved. As he once said, he cared most about “little people with big sorrows.” Yet La Bohème is a full-scale opera, not a short verismo work about Sicilian peasants (as in Cavalleria Rusticana) or itinerant actors traveling in Calabria (as in Pagliacci). It would also be hard to imagine anything farther removed from the grandeur of the earlier operas of the 1800s: Donizetti’s shows about English royalty and nobility, for example; or Verdi’s Don Carlos, set in the court of Philip II of Spain, or Aida, set in the Egypt of the pharaohs. That is why La Bohème transformed its whole field, its genre.
 
The world premiere of La Bohème took place in the Teatro Regio in Turin on February 1, 1896, with young Arturo Toscanini conducting. Its cast was solid professionals, not queens and kings of the stage, so they were cut to the proper dimensions for this opera. In the end, its success swept everything else aside. It was everything Puccini had hoped for: a composer’s dream, for La Bohème is his opera, utterly and forever his.
 
Mary Jane Matz is the author of numerous books including Puccini: A Biography (2002) and Verdi: A Biography (1996). She is a frequent contributor to Opera News and many other publications.


La Bohème: Puccini’s “One for the Heart”

By Basil De Pinto
 
Comparisons are odious but we indulge in them anyway. Where the arts are concerned, we have to discipline ourselves to take each work and judge it for its own individual worth. Because a Botticelli is “pretty,” we cannot disparage it with reference to an El Greco, which is anything but. Although Don Pasquale is not Otello, we can still appreciate its bel canto splendors. La Bohème is one of the masterpieces of the Italian lyric tradition and rightly deserves its place in the canon. It is also well loved, as it should be. A work is not good because it is popular, but popular because it is good. Think of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the waltzes of Johann Strauss. Verdi thought that the public was the supreme judge in these matters and he was right.

 
Puccini was not an “intellectual” composer, but he was extraordinarily intelligent. He was a man of the theater, he knew how to appeal to his public and, of course, he was a very astute businessman. He also understood the sentiment of his time, namely that a human interest story about believable people was the surest way to captivate an audience. But what he achieved in La Bohème reaches far beyond clever tactics. The emotional content of this opera, simply put, touches the heart in the most fundamental way. It is an irresistible tale, like that of Romeo and Juliet, where young love and a tragic end reach across historical and social boundaries to sweep us up and hold us fascinated.

 
In 1896 Puccini was already an experienced composer, but he had only one surefire hit behind him, Manon Lescaut. He would go on to write many other fine works but La Bohème is the unique example of his art at its finest. Why is that so? First of all he paints a large canvas with extraordinary economy of means. The score of La Bohème, without intermissions, takes barely two hours to perform. Sir Thomas Beecham, a famous interpreter of the opera, said he loved it because “Puccini gets right to it,” with no dallying along the way (and remember that Beecham was also a distinguished conductor of Wagner, who tends to dally quite a bit). There is an almost headlong movement in the first two acts from the lovers’ first meeting and the Christmas Eve celebration with their friends to the bittersweet row in the third act and the tragic music at the close. The pace has to do not with rushing anything, but with an inevitability that is both understandable and heartbreaking.

 
But if the composer’s strokes are few they are sure and clear. The characters in La Bohème are at once instantly recognizable and completely unforgettable. The two sets of lovers, whose Act 3 quartet is the musical and emotional heart of the opera, appeal to us not because we might meet them every day on the street—poets, painters, streetwalkers—but as real persons whose human traits might belong to anybody. Rodolfo is impetuous, dreamy, given to flights of fancy, sketching those “castles in the air” he sings of when he tells Mimì who he is. His next-door neighbor is frail and sickly, the kind of person easily overlooked until she bares her soul and reveals a poetic sensibility to match Rodolfo’s. Her opposite number is the extrovert Musetta, loquacious and vivacious and wily in the ways of the world. Marcello the painter, warm and outgoing, sees his mirror image in Rodolfo, the two of them capable of both generous loving and destructive jealousy.

 
The other persons of the drama are not minor, but skillfully crafted pieces of the overall mosaic: Schaunard, the savvy musician who brings home the bacon, and Colline, the reserved philosopher who cracks an off-color joke in Latin at the Café Momus and who gets a small but touching aria to grace the final scene. The buffo roles of Benoit and Alcindoro complete the muster of large-as-life characters that everybody knows, precisely, by heart.

 
Puccini’s musical palette does not have as yet the symphonic richness to come in The Girl of the Golden West or the game attempt at oriental exoticism in Turandot but it is amply endowed with the secure touch of a composer completely in command of his idiom. The score of Bohème is, unlike the libretto, the work of a single hand, steady, committed, moving with a sure touch from one scene to the next, enveloping the characters and situations with living and breathing musical form.

 
Think of the familiar opening rumble in the orchestra and the ascent to a swaying sound in the strings: even if we were not looking at the stage we would know that the curtain is going up, action is about to happen. And it starts right in: Rodolfo and Marcello, joking about the cold; the burning of the manuscript one act at a time, then the whole play; the flare-up and the warmth, the predictable heap of ashes. The other friends enter, then the landlord demanding the rent and his summary dismissal—all of it proceeding in rollicking fashion to bright, perpetual motion music.

 
With Mimì’s entrance a whole new mood transpires. Suddenly there is a quiet hesitancy in the music that depicts the shy, timid creature who immediately enchants Rodolfo, revealing something about him as well, a softer, more reflective side. They exchange intimate portraits of themselves and then join in the rapturous duet that fully illustrates the exorbitant, and perhaps rash, nature of their total immersion in one another. They proceed at once from the cramped garret to the big crowded space before the Café Momus, full of color and life, where Musetta and the hapless Alcindoro join them, she to catch Marcello in her snare, he left to pay the bill for everybody else’s party. The whole scene lasts barely a few minutes but it is an ingenious depiction of a riotous and carefree way of life that carries within it the seeds of conflict to come.


If we have been observing carefully, we notice a quiet exchange between Mimì and Rodolfo in the midst of all the noise and gaiety: he gently but surprisingly firmly tells her never to play the coquette like the scandalous Musetta, and she rather limply reassures him. As the curtain rises on the crucial third act we sense that the personal qualities of these two will lead them down a road that will tear them apart.


There is a brusque, almost brutal opening measure. The melancholy sound of a pair of flutes depicts the snow falling on a cold dawn at the entrance to the city. This is no longer the Paris of bright lights and exuberant laughter, but a place of darkness and poverty where street sweepers and peasant women hawk their meager wares. Her lovely theme ushers in an exhausted, failing Mimì, who calls for Marcello. She tells him of the intolerable strain of living with Rodolfo, who loves her but rails at her every movement that is not completely wrapped up in him. Marcello, warm and caring, understands what the central issue is: Can the lovers remain together in such a state?

 
Mimì hides as Rodolfo enters, blustering to his friend that he is sick of Mimì’s flirtatious ways. Marcello berates him, but then the real truth emerges. Rodolfo knows that Mimì is deathly ill; he is overcome with remorse that his poverty is making her illness worse; grief, not jealousy, is the basis of his roughness toward her. Mimì, coming forward, has the courage to say, in her touching farewell, that they must separate. What follows is an astonishing piece of musical and dramatic composition. Marcello re-enters, dragging along the ever rebellious Musetta. In the quartet that ensues, these two lovers are bickering and insulting one another, while Mimì and Rodolfo affirm both their love and their need to say goodbye. The soaring lyricism of the one pair merges with the half comic byplay of the other. The composer’s achievement lies in the contrast that keeps both musical lines intact so that they contrast but never obscure one another. We hear with great clarity a diptych combining both rage and sweetness. This is musical ingenuity of the highest order.

 
But the technique is there to serve the dramatic need. Because Puccini understood so deeply the psychological traits of his characters he was able to invest them with a musical form that expressed exactly the torrent of emotion on display. That is perhaps the most salient feature of the opera as a whole. At every turn the music heightens and enhances the drama as it unfolds. Raucous laughter, holiday merrymaking, the rush of first love, the sadness of parting, and the gaze into the abyss of death: Puccini’s music embraces it and exposes it with realistic precision but, more importantly, with deep compassion and empathy for the people and events he transcribes for us to experience vicariously. The end of the scene echoes the beginning: the stage is empty, the snow begins to fall again, and the same ominous chords come crashing down once more. This scene has to rank with the most moving of any in opera. Again, although brief it encompasses powerful emotion along with musical means that enhance the action and draw the audience into its wrenching intensity.

 
Interestingly, the last act does not come as an anticlimax after this great scene, but rather as a dramatic necessity. Mimì comes home to the garret where she and Rodolfo first met. Again the scene opens to comic horseplay that quickly gives way to the pathos of the heroine’s last moments. Briefly left alone the lovers recall the joy of discovery in this place, their self-revelation and their pledges of fidelity. All together, the Bohemians support one another, sharing a common loss. Perhaps each of them is thinking of the heights and depths that all must face, and finding courage in the sorrow that envelops them all.

 
Puccini gave the world at least a half-dozen masterpieces and put his characteristic marks of musical invention and dramatic incisiveness into one each of them. But no matter how much we enjoy and esteem them all, La Bohème has a unique hold on the operatic public. It has spawned stage and screen approaches like Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway version and the rock incarnation Rent. It has been the showcase for established stars and for hopeful beginners. It is indestructible because its inherent greatness both defies mediocrity and encourages artistic excellence. More than anything else Puccini knew the human heart and in La Bohème he mastered it once and for all.

 
Basil De Pinto is a writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. A frequent contributor to LA Opera programs, he has also written for the opera companies of Washington, Seattle, Atlanta and Fort Worth.


Janai Brugger Wins Met Auditions

Janai Brugger at the Met

Congratulations to soprano Janai Brugger, a member of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, who was a winner at the 2012 National Council Auditions held Sunday, March 18 at the Metropolitan Opera. A second-year artist in the program, she will sing Musetta for three performances (May 12, 20, 23) of LA Opera’s upcoming production of La Boheme. On May 12, the Auditions Final Concert will be broadcast via Classical KUSC 91.5fm.

Janai is one of only five winners at this year’s highly competitive National Council Auditions final. Other winners include Anthony Clark Evans, a baritone from Owensboro, KY; Matthew Grills, a tenor from Newtown, CT; Margaret Mezzacappa, a mezzo-soprano from Euclid, OH; and Andrey Nemzer, a countertenor from Moscow, Russia. The winners were selected from nine finalists who performed arias with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Davis. Each winner receives a cash prize of $15,000 as well as invaluable career exposure: the audience for the auditions includes influential opera executives, artist managers and music critics.

Nearly 1,500 singers between the ages of 20 and 30 participated in this year’s auditions, which are held annually in 41 districts and 14 regions throughout the United States and Canada and are sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera National Council. Given the reach of the auditions, the number of applicants, and the long tradition associated with them, the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions are considered the most prestigious competition in North America for singers seeking to launch an operatic career.

Some of the biggest stars in opera received their first major recognition as National Council winners. Past winners of the Met Auditions include Renée Fleming, Hei-Kyung Hong, Angela Meade, Sondra Radvanovsky, Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham, Stephanie Blythe, Dolora Zajick, Alek Shrader, Nathan Gunn, Lawrence Brownlee, Eric Owens, Thomas Hampson and Samuel Ramey. In 2007, the National Council Audition process was captured in an acclaimed documentary, The Audition, which was shown on PBS and released on DVD.

  •  janet says:

    You were so amazing to listen to. I enjoyed hearing you perform. I knew you would win. Best to you in the future. I know I will see you on stage at the Met. You will be a huge star aka Renee Flemming.


  • “Albert Herring” live broadcast tonight!

    Tune in tonight for a special “L.A. Opera on Air” live broadcast of Albert Herring on Classical KUSC 91.5fm, starring Alek Shrader and Christine Brewer. Hosted by Duff Murphy and Kimberlea Daggy, the broadcast begins at 7:30pm, and will feature backstage interviews with conductor James Conlon and the stars of the opera. For opera lovers who live outside Southern California, you can listen via online streaming at www.kusc.org.


    Albert Herring–A Note from the Conductor

    By James Conlon

    Albert Herring, Britten’s only true comic opera, is the second of his three “chamber” operas. The first of these, The Rape of Lucretia (1946), was written immediately after his first successful opera, Peter Grimes, permanently established his international reputation. Seven years and three operas separate Albert Herring (1947) from the last of the three chamber operas, The Turn of the Screw (1954).

    Despite the enormous success of Peter Grimes in 1945, the process of dealing with the human element of large orchestra and chorus, rules and regulations, resistance and intrigue had dampened his enthusiasm for writing for a large theater. His very solution was to write an opera for which he could personally control all of the elements. It was to be performed in a small theater, with a virtuoso orchestra of 13 players. The subject would be intimate with few characters and no chorus. By so doing, he liberated himself from any demands for convention emanating from the public as well as those of “star” singers. He had imposed conditions on the world to serve his operatic muse at an extraordinarily young age. Britten’s three chamber operas were premiered in small, but “established,” theaters: Glyndebourne for the first two, and Venice’s La Fenice for the third.

    Albert Herring is very funny, but it is not a farce. Like most great comedies, an underlying seriousness raises it to a higher level. Beneath its mirth and humanity is a delightful but stinging critique of the mores of Victorian England, which still were operative in the 1940s. Britten, who consistently espoused socially progressive political ideas, shows his capacity to serve up radical fare to an often oblivious conservative public. The work was, if anything, underestimated at the beginning. Dismissed by some as light-weight mirth, its deeper encoded messages, whether unrecognized or denied, eluded the public. In contrast, The Marriage of Figaro, which today threatens no one, was considered subversive in a world in the throes of the French Revolution. Albert Herring passed under the radar, but time has revealed it to be far more radical than first assumed.

    Albert Herring is the tale of the rite of passage and coming of age of the only son of Mrs. Herring, a grocer in an imaginary small market town in 1900. It satirizes the town’s leading lights. It dissects its social stratification, from Lady Billows, “an elderly autocrat” who leads a one-woman crusade to safeguard the town’s “morals,” down to three working-class children. Her clever servant, Florence Pike, is perched uncomfortably between her Mistress and the town. Her plaint is very Mozartian. The opera opens with her reflections on the difficulty of serving her mistress, recalling Figaro and Leporello’s grievances about their masters. The hypocrisies of small-town Victorian morality mirror those of their Mozartian predecessor. Beaumarchais and Da Ponte criticize the aristocracy’s claim on the sexuality of its servants and subjects; Britten and librettist Eric Crozier harpoon their hypocritical attempt to control it.

    Britten focuses his keen eye on those themes that were to recur repeatedly in his dramatic works: the outsider, the marginalization of the individual, outraged innocence and social inequities. His unlikely young hero cuts himself loose from his mother’s apron strings, defies the entire town on the eve of his ceremonial crowning as “May King.” His night of debauchery is also his achievement, part defiance and part affirmation of his new sexual identity. He comes of age after “a nightmare example of drunkenness, dirt and worse….” Albert’s triumph is in defining himself as he is or wishes to be, not as what society and his mother have has told him he should be.

    Britten enlightens and moves us, challenges and provokes us, while making us laugh, as Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini had done before him. Excepting early works, all but Mozart had virtually never written a comedy. In Verdi’s and Puccini’s cases, that overdue comedy was their last completed opera. The success of these great comic operas is partially explicable by these composers’ essential seriousness and vast theatrical experience. Through their profound gift for tragedy, drama and melodrama, they transformed that gravity for the comic stage.

    Going into the period of World War II, the standard repertory could count five perfect comic masterpieces: The Marriage of Figaro, The Barber of Seville, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Falstaff and Gianni Schicchi. After Benjamin Britten delivered Albert Herring to the world in 1947, there were six.

    James Conlon is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera


    Albert’s Wild Explosion

    By Gavin Plumley

    Benjamin Britten is often considered a severe composer. It is a somewhat myopic view of the man and his work. After all, his first opera was the 1941 American comedy Paul Bunyan. But it wasn’t until 1945 and the premiere of his searing tragedy Peter Grimes that Britten really made an impact. It was followed by an equally intense chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia. In order to impress, Britten wrote serious operas about fundamental issues within society. So the choice to write a comedy next was somewhat surprising. Ringing the changes, Albert Herring first appeared in June 1947. Premiered within the sylvan surroundings of Glyndebourne and set in rural Suffolk, it eschews the death and high drama of Peter Grimes and The Rape of Lucretia. At its premiere, the critics and cognoscenti felt it was no more than mere entertainment. But nothing is ever quite what it seems. Although conceived as a comedy, Albert Herring is just as focused a study of society’s mores and morals as any of Britten’s operas. And through the smiles and high jinks of Albert’s drunken escapade we learn much about the world in which we live.

     

    It is perhaps most telling that, like Peter Grimes, Britten set his comic opera close to home. Britten was born in the Suffolk seaside town of Lowestoft. Now rather neglected due to the North Sea’s flagging oil industry, it was a smart provincial town back in 1913. His studies took him away to London but Britten remained devoted to his home county. Even while in America during the Second World War, thoughts of England remained. A broadcast by E.M. Forster about the Suffolk-born poet George Crabbe not only inspired Peter Grimes but also prompted a return home, when Britten bought a house near to Aldeburgh. Tapping into the wellspring of his creativity and identity, Peter Grimes proved to be an audacious and personal masterpiece. Its pessimistic look at provincial society was a surprisingly negative theme to explore in the months immediately following the end of the War. Yet despite its cynicism, the opera placed Britten on the international map as performances spread across Europe and into America. Commissions flowed and Britten became the darling of post-War music.

     

    A second string quartet, commissions for orchestral variations (“The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”) and a new association with the opera house at Glyndebourne in rural Sussex followed after the premiere of the opera. Britten, keen to preserve individuality, quit the company at Sadler’s Wells where Peter Grimes had first met a dazzled public and made plans for his own English Opera Group. Working with the artist John Piper and the writer and director Eric Crozier, he was going to create his own work on his own terms. John Christie, the owner of Glyndebourne, was persuaded that his pet opera house would benefit from an association with these young movers and shakers, confirmed by the 1946 premiere there of The Rape of Lucretia. Like Grimes, this new opera was a bold tragedy of personal conviction in the face of societal pressure. A theme was emerging in Britten’s work.

     

    The choice of writing a comedy after Grimes and Lucretia offered welcome relief to audience and creators alike. Britten had been pondering an opera based on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and had discussed the idea with Ronald Duncan—the librettist of Lucretia—but it was dropped in favour of Eric Crozier’s cheeky new scheme:

     

    “I suggested a comic opera based on Maupassant’s short story, Le rosier de Madame Husson. Britten liked the idea, especially when he saw how easily the action could be translated from Maupassant’s France to his own native coast of East Suffolk. We made a brief sketch of how the story might be adapted as an opera, and, before I quite understood what was happening, it was agreed that I should undertake the libretto.”

     

    Britten worked fast, demanding intense concentration and rapid drafting. By October 1946 (just three months after the premiere of The Rape of Lucretia) Britten was already asking Crozier “How’s Albert?” Inspired by the performances of tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s partner, in Così fan tutte and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at Sadler’s Wells during the war, Crozier and Britten knew that Pears had great comic potential for the central role. Crozier gifted Britten a Penguin Books translation of the Maupassant and, in return, Britten gave Crozier a copy of the libretto of Falstaff. Both were going to learn how to write operatic comedy from the very best.

     

    Britten added to this delightful mixture of Mozart, Smetana and Verdi with his own passion for Suffolk. And not only did Crozier transplant the whole tale from Normandy to seaside England, but everything within the libretto had direct signifiers within Britten’s world: the village of Loxford is an invention, but clearly linked to Yoxford just outside Aldeburgh; Albert Herring is named after a grocer from nearby Tunstall; Lady Billows got her surname from a colleague at the British Council; Florence was the soprano Joan Cross’s maid; Nancy was named after the mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans; and Harold Wood is a station on the way from Suffolk to London. It was a roman à clef of a libretto, though no direct comparisons or criticisms were intended. On the surface, Britten’s opera was a loving homage to his rural Suffolk and, with the advent of the motorcar, a landscape and society that was beginning to disappear.

     

    Britten wrote a charming score to match. The children in the village sing variants of folk songs and nursery rhymes. Lady Billows speaks in sub-Elgarian tones, while the local dignitaries, the mayor and the policeman, have all the hallmarks of Gilbert and Sullivan’s parodied Englishmen. On the surface, then, Albert Herring is a delicious comedy about English manners intended for easy consumption after the more difficult tragedies of Peter Grimes and The Rape of Lucretia. But like Così fan tutte, The Bartered Bride and Falstaff, there is a richer and more important seam that runs through the piece. Britten, as ever, digs beneath the surface. The village of Loxford is clearly a stuffy place. Rules are obeyed and nobody can step out of line. Albert’s mother, in particular, keeps a firm grip on society ways. Obsessed by the ticking of her clock (immediately apparent in the score), she is a rigid unbending moral force within the opera. Albert is desperate to break away.

     

    Despite his ambitions, Albert has no immediate musical personality. While the adults are rigid caricatures—familiar to anyone who knows BBC comedy or The Pirates of Penzance—the young freethinkers occupy a simple and carefree sound world. Albert is caught between them. Sid and Nancy are emblematic of the youngsters’ happy-go-lucky domain. So while Albert is the weary worker in the shop—“I’m sorry, but I’ve got a lot to do”—Sid is outwardly gleeful in his exclamations of “I’m busy too.” Dotted jig-like rhythms in the woodwinds show that nothing can get him down. His innocent love for Nancy is captured in equally uncomplicated terms—albeit with a dash of Englishman’s eroticism. But there’s clearly more to Albert than meets the eye and his Act 1 aria betrays previously unspoken emotions. The interlude after the scene in the marquee similarly portrays a split personality. Following the festivities, the village dance continues, but soon settles into a more existential musical passage. Albert is drunk, having had too much of Sid’s spiked lemonade (with a hint of Tristan und Isolde thrown in by Britten). He boasts and stumbles around the shop, accidentally ringing the bell hanging over the door. He calls out for his mother, even if his inebriated state mocks the propriety she craves. Her foursquare music lurks in the background, but Albert is “blowed if I’m ready for that.” The following scene may, on the surface, be a jokey dialogue between Albert’s good and bad conscience. But the music for “Why did she stare?”—his pondering of Nancy and Sid’s openhearted sincerity—is much more profound. Having seen a way out of the deadlock, Albert seizes his moment and escapes.

     

    After the manhunt, parodying a similar but truly shocking moment in Peter Grimes, Albert returns to the village ready to answer questions. His mother and Lady Billows are shaken by his absence. Capitalising on their disbelief, Albert boasts of his brawls at the Horse and Groom and his night of “drunkenness, dirt and worse.” In an unexpectedly audacious moment, Albert castigates the village and his mother for their repressive force:

     

    You know what drove me,
    You know how I could.
    It was all because
    You squashed me down and reined me in,
    Did up my instincts with safety pins,
    Kept me wrapped in cotton wool,
    Measure my life by a twelve-inch rule—
    Protected me with such devotion
    My only way out was a wild explosion!

     

    The timpani that had underpinned Mrs. Herring’s questions now drives through Albert’s response. He answers her determination with his own unbending will. For Britten, whose mother had equally mollycoddled him throughout his childhood and early adult life, Crozier’s words must have triggered significant memories. Together, Albert and Britten crave freedom from stuffy domesticity. That nursery life has taken its toll and Albert finds his voice in a highly personalised outburst. For someone who had little individuality to begin with, this is a bold statement indeed.

     

    Heard within the context of the opera as a whole, this moment has particular force. It follows one of the most touching threnodies in all of Britten’s output. The Book of Common Prayer tones of “In the midst of life is death,” the tolling bell and communal mourning prefigure the War Requiem, which followed some 15 years later. Coupled with Albert’s explosion, Britten indicates that, while the impetus for Albert Herring had been farce, the end result was much more serious. Musically, that shift is heard through Albert’s developing musical character. A mirror of the other people in the village, he eventually finds his own voice, as individualized and elegiac as that of Peter Grimes. And like that irrational and tragic figure, Albert speaks for a more liberal world of poetry, ambiguity and wider understanding.

     

    So, although Britten clearly intended a warm and sincere homage to his home, Albert Herring equally points out the flaws in provincial life. It was a comedic exploration of the tensions that lie at the heart of Peter Grimes. Despite that message, many couldn’t see beyond the surface. John Christie, obliged to take the piece for Glyndebourne, was heard damning it in front of the audience on opening night. The critics were equally dismissive. It was “a charade” which offered “no more than a snigger.” Now, thankfully, we realise that Albert Herring is as heartfelt as anything within Britten’s incredible output.

     

    © Gavin Plumley, 2012
    Gavin Plumley is a London-based writer and musicologist. He contributes programme notes to opera houses across the globe, including a number on the works of Benjamin Britten. You can read more about his work via his blog www.entartetemusik.blogspot.com.


    The Evolution of a Dark, Underestimated MasterpieceThe Evolution of a Dark, Underestimated Masterpiece

    By Thomas May

    The notorious travails of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark on Broadway may represent an extreme case in our time, but there is a long, fascinating history to the artistic surgery otherwise known as rewriting a show. For Verdi in particular, mastery of this skill played a key role in the evolution of his mature style. While Mozart’s revisions tended for the most part to involve merely supplying new arias tailored to specific singers, Verdi spanned a considerable spectrum in his approach to rewrites. Some were quick touch-ups (La Traviata, following its initial flop) and others entailed reconceiving a work for an entirely new context (the 1865 rewrite of Macbeth for the Paris stage). But Simon Boccanegra inspired Verdi to undertake the most extensive overhaul of his entire career, almost a decade after he had officially “retired” from writing opera.

    Verdi’s decision to remold the work is often seen as a cautious testing of the waters before he was ready once again, confidence restored, to plunge all the way into the works of his twilight years, Otello and Falstaff. There is no doubt that the profounder exploration of character ventured in the revised Boccanegra helped enrich the composer’s palette for those later miracles.

    Yet in the rewritten form by which it has become best known (and which is the basis for most contemporary productions, including this one), Simon Boccanegra is not just an artistic stepping stone but a remarkable—if flawed—masterpiece in its own right. Verdi reclaimed a work that had already begun to sink into oblivion and transformed it into one of his most complex operatic visions. The challenges it poses for performers and audiences alike account for Boccanegra’s reputation as an opera for the Verdi connoisseur. While even drastic revision failed to solve all the underlying problems of dramatic structure and development, recent advocates have generated renewed interest in the work, along with wider admiration for the real magnitude of Verdi’s achievement here.

    The original version of Simon Boccanegra was already a challenging work for audiences. After a lukewarm premiere at La Fenice in Venice in March 1857, the composer remarked that he had written a score “that does not make its effect immediately.” A number of revivals took place throughout Italy later in the decade, but the reception was disappointingly mixed (including outright fiascos in Florence and Milan).

    Collaborating with his long-term librettist Francesco Maria Piave (and, to Piave’s chagrin, using revisions by the exiled revolutionary Giuseppe Montanelli), Verdi might well have thought he had just the right ingredients for success. After all, the story derived from a drama by Antonio García Gutiérrez, the Spanish playwright and emulator of Victor Hugo who had also been the source for Il Trovatore, a work that had furnished Verdi a resounding triumph from the moment it premiered in 1853. Simon Boccanegra in fact contains a number of noticeable musical echoes of Il Trovatore, such as the brief, mysterious ballad Paolo sings in the Prologue, divulging the doom-laden backstory of Simon’s love affair with Fiesco’s daughter, the interwoven offstage chants of the Miserere during Fiesco’s opening aria, or the troubadour-like romancing that introduces Gabriele in Act One.

    Nowadays we tend to get tripped up by the strained coincidences of the plot. It’s easy enough to imagine an Anna Russell-esque spoof of its convolutions: “You see, that old sourpuss Fiesco plays fatherly protector to Amelia, but both of them are living under feigned identities and don’t know they are in fact related. Her real father is Simon Boccanegra, but he lost track of her as a baby while gallivanting about at sea, which is one of the reasons Fiesco hates him so passionately, not realizing Amelia actually is his long-lost granddaughter…. I’m not making this up!”

    The device of lost-and-found identities which similarly (or, rather, even more outrageously) propels Il Trovatore’s tragedy obviously didn’t impede that opera’s popularity. But the relatively conservative musical framework in which it all plays out followed conventional expectations for Italian opera in the 1850s that Boccanegra challenged. While there is romantic entanglement, between Amelia and Gabriele, it’s eclipsed by the real love story: the one between father and daughter (and, secondarily, between Simon and the Genoese Republic). On a more abstract level, the predominance not just of male voices, but of male voices at the lower end of the register, might be seen as an emblem for the uniquely dark coloring that pervades its sound world. Verdi, a master of the tinta or sonic coloration that defines a particular dramatic essence, establishes a sense of lurking gloom that is quite distinct from Trovatore’s more romantically nocturnal atmosphere—not to mention the brooding pathos of Don Carlo and other Verdi operas.

    Verdi, in his bones, was a practical man of the theater—at a far remove from Wagner’s endlessly spun theories. The kinds of innovation he was undertaking in these years (usually seen as starting in earnest with Rigoletto in 1851) were, as Verdi authority Julian Budden aptly writes, part of an ongoing process of “self-renewal” that would ultimately extend into the period of Boccanegra’s thoroughgoing rewrite. Instead of revolutionary, all-or-nothing challenges to convention, the composer maintained a more realistic approach characterized by Budden as “a mixture of conservatism and a tendency to cautious reform.”

    At the same time, the material for Boccanegra seems to have drawn together several themes that Verdi found especially stimulating catalysts for his musico-dramatic imagination at its boldest. One is the intense emotional bond between father and daughter, an obsessively recurrent pattern throughout a number of Verdi’s operas which had autobiographical relevance. (The composer had lost his wife and two children to disease when he was only in his 20s.) Another is the way in which personal relationships become bound up in larger power struggles—yet another recurrent theme, as we find in the remarkable intersection of personal and political motivations that generate conflict in Aida and Don Carlo, for example.

    Simon himself only reluctantly agrees to consider the call to become Doge (“leader”) when he is led to believe the position will facilitate gaining access to his beloved (before he learns of her death at the end of the Prologue). The opera’s title character is based loosely on the historical first Doge of the Republic of Genoa, who was elected in 1339 to serve in that position for life on behalf of the populist party, in opposition to the entrenched nobility. (Simon’s earlier popularity won through feats as a state-sponsored pirate are a fictional elaboration.) Verdi wasn’t interested in using history as a pageant-filled spectacle for its own sake (in the manner that became standardized as French grand opera) but in the universally relevant implications of his characters and their plights.

    Yet the potential of Simon Boccanegra’s character as a visionary leader who is thwarted by the intractable jealousies and passions of human nature remained more or less dormant in the first version of the opera. There, Verdi had defied convention by resorting to declamation in place of arias for much of the musical characterization of his chief protagonist. But this untapped potential became the central focus for the composer’s revisions when he finally decided to tackle Simon Boccanegra again in 1880 for a revival at La Scala later that season. Along with his fine-tuning of many other aspects of the score, it was this fundamental recalibration that emphasized the Shakespearean complexity and ambivalence underlying the plot’s creaky melodrama.

    In fact, Shakespearean ambitions helped prompt Boccanegra’s revision in the first place. Verdi hadn’t composed any new operas since Aida in 1871, but Giulio Ricordi, who had taken over as the energetic young head of the music publisher responsible for his catalogue, was determined to lure him back to the stage. He eventually succeeded in reawakening Verdi’s desire to set the drama of Shakespeare to music by strategically piquing his curiosity in a libretto to Shakespeare’s Othello that would be prepared by Arrigo Boito. A composer and man of letters who was a generation younger than Verdi, the half-Italian, half-Polish Boito had been associated with the avant-garde and had even earned the elder composer’s contempt in previous years. But the new project proved irresistible.

    To help ensure a smooth collaboration, the idea of first revising Boccanegra—another preoccupation Ricordi had been urging on Verdi for over a decade, particularly since the public’s interest in that work had since vanished—seems to have at last taken hold. Verdi and Boito worked quickly, their efforts vindicated by a resounding success when the overhauled Boccanegra premiered in March 1881 (on the same stage that had treated the opera’s first incarnation so rudely in the 1850s).

    It was in fact Verdi’s own idea to overwrite the finale to act one, in which the most extensive revisions were concentrated, with a grand new scene set in the Council Chamber of the Doge’s palace. Here, Simon’s plea for peace with Genoa’s enemies and between its own citizens—the enlightened vision of a new order, symbolized by explicit reference to the humanist poet Petrarch—are inevitably drowned out by the archaic, fateful strains of the curse Paolo is forced to pronounce on the villain who kidnapped Amelia (which, in a brilliant stroke of irony, not only is against himself, Simon’s former close ally, but seals his desire to ensure the Doge’s downfall). Menacing unison fanfares from the brass reinforce the impression of dark, inescapable forces that have an interior, psychological aspect throughout the opera—in the form of the unassuageable guilt that haunts Simon over the loss of his beloved. Verdi brings home the point through his chilling juxtaposition of the images of the tomb and the throne at the end of the Prologue.

    All of these qualities make the title role an intimidating proving ground for the leading singer, both vocally and dramatically. Yet another significant revision was to intensify the role of Paolo as the Doge’s betrayer. His resentment here suggests the moral complexion that would be probed even further in the character of Iago in the new opera that was already incubating by this point. Paolo’s increased stature adds a powerful counterweight to the more conventional enmity represented by Fiesco, a character whose inflexibility toward Simon evoked what Verdi described as “a voice of steel.” In terms of the opera’s political conflict, Fiesco stands for the proudly aristocratic old order threatened by the winds of change. Yet it’s precisely this inflexibility that allows for the moving dramatic effect of his final reconciliation with the dying Doge. Fiesco retains his harshly pessimistic outlook even after making peace with his former enemy.

    Verdi also refined many other points in the score with nips and tucks and subtle adjustments to harmony and orchestration. Over the nearly quarter-century that had elapsed since the first version of Simon Boccanegra—roughly the very same period that separates the Prologue from the rest of the action, as it happens—many of the conventions Verdi was tweaking in the 1850s had become moot. The stylistic overlay of his middle-period work with the more sophisticated continuity of later Verdi can be jarring for those who insist on consistency. Much of the music for the lead tenor Gabriele, for example, remains relatively unchanged and thus brings back the clearest echoes of the composer’s earlier style. At the same time, this juxtaposition creates a fascinating color of its own, not unlike the stratification of styles found in Wagner’s Siegfried, whose composition spanned more than a decade. Budden memorably likens these various facets of the revised Boccanegra score to “turning a stage-coach into a steam train.”

    The thrilling climax created by the new first act, however, created a new set of dramaturgical challenges by reconfiguring the opera’s overall structure. A kind of lingering diminuendo seems to fall over the remaining two acts. The glimpses of promise and rebirth hinted in the first act—especially in the moving recognition scene between Simon and Amelia—are now overshadowed by a gradually thickening gloom. Musically, Verdi’s economy allows him to focus on ambience and internal states, making for an almost proto-modernist sense of drama beneath the linear progression of the plot. The undulating figurations he uses throughout the opera to suggest Genoa’s maritime character—at their brightest in Amelia’s first aria in act one—acquire a hallucinatory character as the poison takes effect and Simon seeks escape through memories of his beloved sea.

    But it’s another fundamental musical gesture of this score—the fatalistic, funereal tread first heard in the Miserere in the Prologue—that returns for the unrelenting bleakness of the final moments. Despite the reconciliation that seems to be enacted as the dying Simon passes on the leadership to Gabriele, Verdi’s orchestra ends the opera with sighing phrases and the starkly tolling echoes of the past. The composer’s earlier verdict had been that Simon Boccanegra is “too sad, too depressing.” But the powerful, striking contrasts that animate the revised opera ultimately underscore its dark vision.

    Thomas May is a frequent contributor to LA Opera programs.


    A Letter from Plácido Domingo

    Dear friends,

    It is a new year and the beginning of a new era for LA Opera. In the first 25 years of our existence, we quickly established ourselves as one of the world’s leading opera companies. Naturally, there have been obstacles along the way, but nevertheless we have been able to thrive and grow. We are proud of the leading role we play in our community, and grateful to every one of you for your continued support over the years.

    Like most arts organizations, we have seen challenges as a result of the global economy. While we are cautious in our planning and watching our budgets closely, I am proud that the artistic quality and musicality of our work has remained undiminished. Our past investments in backstage technology have turned out to help us in this regard, for we are now able to maintain a high artistic standard at a reduced cost.

    You may have noticed the new graphic addition to our logo. The sunburst is based on design elements in our beloved Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, our home in the iconic Music Center of Los Angeles County. We selected this imagery because it embodies a creative energy and pioneering spirit unique to Los Angeles. This new look signifies the next phase in our exciting journey to best serve the people of this dynamic and vibrant city.

    We recently conducted a major research campaign to learn how we could better serve our audience and have a bigger impact throughout our community. This has led to several new initiatives that we are proud to announce. First of all, we are implementing a new seating program that will enable us to invite more students, senior citizens and disadvantaged members of our community to experience the magic of opera. Tickets will be set aside for every performance, supplementing the extensive outreach opportunities that we already provide.

    Second, we will be offering affordable ticket packages to enable parents, grandparents, and other relatives to introduce their young family members to opera’s thrilling combination of music and theater. More information on both of these programs will be available in a few weeks, when we announce the full details of our 2012/13 Season.

    The final announcement I have today is perhaps of the most immediate interest. Next season, we will be lowering many of our prices and increasing the number of more affordable seats. We know that many people who want to attend our performances are facing tough choices about spending these days, and we want to make it easier for everyone to experience the work for

    I can’t wait to share the incredible new season that we have put together, and I am equally excited about the new changes that we have made as we plan for the future. I look forward to sharing with you the unique experience of LA Opera as we move into an exciting new era!

    Sincerely,
    Plácido Domingo
    Eli and Edythe Broad General Director


    Simon Boccanegra—A Note from the Conductor

    By James Conlon

    Simon Boccanegra is among Giuseppe Verdi’s most extraordinary creations. It is difficult for me to write on this subject divorced from my personal experience and feelings. I do so with conviction that reflects not just the practical experience of three productions and some 25 performances behind me, but also a lifetime’s passionate acquaintance.

    Pure chance led to my first encounter with this opera at the age of 13. It was among the first operas of Verdi that I knew from beginning to end. Recently, on SiriusXM radio, I heard a broadcast of a 1964 performance I attended from my perch in the standing room area of the old Metropolitan Opera House. Verdi aficionados know and love it, but many here will be hearing and seeing it for the first time. Given my young age when I first learned the opera, I did not differentiate it from Rigoletto, Traviata or Aida, and it was years before I realized it was less well known.

    I wondered why. It was not heard in the U.S. (at the Met) until January 28, 1932. (Lawrence Tibbett, Ezio Pinza, Giovanni Martinelli were in the cast with Tullio Serafin conducting). It had been premiered in Vienna just two years earlier in a translation by the eminent Franz Werfel. The so-called “political” operas of Verdi have often taken longer to be embraced by the greater public. The “love stories,” and those that are predominantly concerned with universal, human relations, were at an advantage. Tales of political struggle, lust for power and nations at war were slower to gain popularity.

    But can one really divide up his operas in two categories? In fact, there is not a single opera by Verdi that is not essentially about human relations. Not one! Whatever the historical context, the era in which a plot was placed, the composer always put matters of the heart at the core. At the same time Verdi, more than any other 19th-century Italian composer, was fascinated by the dramatic potential inherent in tales of power struggles. The early historical operas, written in the heat of the political upheavals of the 1840s destined to free Italy from foreign influence, constitute a significant part of his youthful works. The so-called Risorgimento operas are works in which national aspirations form a central theme. Whether biblical (Nabucco) or historical (Giovanna d’Arco, I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata and, most of all, La Battaglia di Legnano), they reverberated with the growing resentment of foreign domination. Increasingly sophisticated and subtle are Macbeth, I Vespri Siciliani, Simon Boccanegra and Don Carlo. It is significant that Verdi revised three of these works (two of these, Macbeth and Boccanegra, more than two decades after their first versions).

    Simon Boccanegra is a shining case in point of both the historical/personal drama dichotomy as well as the dynamics of aria-based scenes versus “through-composed” scenes and acts. It is a hybrid opera, resulting from the enormous time lag betweens its two versions (1857 and 1881). A stylistic chasm separates the passages written only four years after La Traviata from those created directly before Otello. And yet, amazingly it holds together with enormous tensile strength.

    In fact the results are seamless, while belying the colossal development that separates its elements. There is little stopping and starting. Only the tenor’s aria seems to beg for applause. By far the best-known aria from the opera is for the bass (Fiesco). Its postlude would seem to be drawn from Don Carlo, although it was written before it. In fact, one can appreciate Simon Boccanegra as a prelude to Don Carlo. It is a free adaptation of history based on real historical characters. Its color (tinta as Verdi called it) is dark and mysterious. It has a preponderance of low male voices (a baritone as protagonist, a bass-baritone and two basses versus a single tenor and soprano).

    The opera offers a great deal to all. For the baritone, the demanding title role is at the apex in the pantheon of Verdi roles, rivaling Macbeth, Rigoletto and Falstaff. The role Fiesco has the stature of King Philip the Second. The soprano role (Amelia) looks forward to Desdemona. Paolo, the villain is, particularly in the 1881 version, a study for Iago. For a great stage director, the opera’s setting in medieval Genoa provides a historical context rich in possibilities. Descriptions of Giorgio Strehler’s 1971 production defy comparisons—and superlatives. I would not hesitate to identify it as the single greatest opera production I have ever seen.

    For the conductor and orchestra, Boccanegra’s score is rich in layered textures, exquisite colors and dramatic intensity. It stands with Don Carlo, on the way to Otello and Falstaff. The sea is as omnipresent as in Wagner’s Tristan and Flying Dutchman or Britten’s Peter Grimes. It reflects the sea in the mysterious opening chords (which Liszt employed in his famous paraphrase for piano), the impressionistic panoramic introduction to Amelia’s introductory aria and in the poignant reflections of Simon in the last act. The eerily lugubrious prologue, the exquisitely moving Amelia/Simon scene (counterpart to the Violetta/Germont Act Two scene), Paolo’s concise Shakespearean “poison” soliloquy and the last act’s reconciliation duet between Fiesco and Simon are among the most moving of their genre.

    But by far the crown jewel of the opera is the Council Chamber Scene. It stands as one of Verdi’s greatest accomplishments. One step before Otello, he demonstrates the heights to which he and Arrigo Boito (whom he engaged to test a hypothetical future collaboration) will soar in Otello and Falstaff. For grandeur, depth, concision and inspiration it is second to none. Simon is portrayed as a fearless and visionary leader of his people. His appeal for peace with the enemy city-state of Venice and the conflicting political factions of the Plebeians and Patricians are eloquent avowals of the tenets of Italy’s recent unification. Finally, his brilliant manipulation of the guilty Paolo, shaming him publicly by forcing him to curse himself in front of the entire populace, provides one of the most hair-raising curtains in Verdi’s entire output.

    Simon Boccanegra, above all, is a man of peace, and the opera a tale of the power of reconciliation. Simon’s greatness as a leader resides in his valiant (if sometimes fruitless) efforts to promote harmony and understanding within the Italian peninsula—the republics of Venice and Genoa, the Patricians and the Plebeians, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The most moving scenes in the opera (Simon’s discovery of his long lost daughter, and his unexpected reunion with Fiesco after a quarter-century’s enmity) evoke profound feelings of joyous release from tragic separations and hostilities. In his dying moments, he blesses his daughter’s marriage to one who had been his lifelong enemy, and appoints him as his successor, in order to bring together the warring factions that had troubled his entire reign. He lives long enough (just barely) to fulfill the covenant with Fiesco to locate the missing Maria, and he dies having realized his two greatest desires: to find his daughter, and to deliver her to her mother’s father. His tragedy is to have died at the moment of his greatest happiness, enjoyed for only several hours at the end of a life lived in service to his people.

    James Conlon, conductor of Simon Boccanegra, is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera.



    Introducing: Guest Blogger Katherine Giaquinto

    Meet guest blogger/vlogger (and awesome soprano) soprano Katherine Giaquinto!

     

    Katherine is singing the role of Gina in The Magic Dream, a wildly imaginative and engaging retelling of Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute and the latest production from our Education and Community Programs department. She’s sharing her behind the scenes experiences from rehearsal to performance through her regular blog posts and we’re very excited about our collaboration!

    Originally from Canada, Katherine began her performing career as a child actor in film and TV, and moved to Los Angeles to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. A vocal injury prompted her to return to school for singing, where she discovered opera. She went on to complete her BA in Music at UCLA, and her Master of Music at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She now makes her home in Los Angeles, where she continues to passionately explore the intersection of classical music and drama through opera, recitals, concerts, film, and theater. Please visit www.katherinegiaquinto.com for more information.


    LA Opera Makes Early Payment on Loan

    Photo by Steve Cohn Photography

    At a time when performing arts companies across the country are grappling with budgetary issues, it’s great to hear good news. Today, General Director Plácido Domingo, Board Chairman Marc I. Stern and CEO Stephen D. Rountree appeared before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to announce that LA Opera has made an early payment of $7 million against a $14 million loan the Company received in 2009. The Board of Supervisors also recognized Mr. Domingo for his long history of support and leadership for the arts in Los Angeles. For more information, read all about it at LATimes.com and on LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s blog.

    Happy New Year!

    Now that we’ve celebrated the arrival of the new year and the midpoint of our season, we’ve been busily working on many exciting things coming up in 2012 (and beyond!). We can’t wait to share them with you in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we thank you for your support, and wish every one of you a very happy 2012.


    Domingo-Thornton Young Artists On Tour

    LA Opera is delighted to continue its “Domingo-Thornton Young Artists On Tour” tradition this season, with a semi-staged abridged version of one of Mozart’s most popular comedies, Così fan tutte.

    In this opera, two young men go undercover to test the fidelity of their ladies. What could possibly go wrong? Filled with ravishingly beautiful music and sparkling wit, Così fan tutte features a funny, clever plot that was bracingly politically incorrect, even in Mozart’s day. The music is performed in Italian with English narration, and running time is approximately 50 minutes.

    Featuring:

    Fiordiligi – Tracy Cox
    Dorabella – Renée Rapier
    Ferrando – Ben Bliss
    Guglielmo – Museop Kim
    Don Alfonso – Erik Anstine
    Despina – Valentina Fleer
    Piano – Douglas Sumi

     

    Schedule:

    Wednesday, November 30 at 1:30pm
    Hollenbeck Palms Retirement Community, Historic Chapel
    573 South Boyle Avenue, Los Angeles
    Reservations required, call (323) 307-4522 for information.

     

    Thursday, December 1 at 4:00pm
    Pepperdine University, Raitt Recital Hall
    24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu

     

    Saturday, December 3 at 2:00pm
    Brand Library & Art Center, Recital Hall
    1601 West Mountain Street, Glendale

     

    Tuesday, December 6 at 7:30pm
    University of La Verne, Morgan Auditorium
    1950 Third Street, La Verne

     

    Wednesday, December 7 at 12:30pm
    Occidental College, Booth Hall, Bird Studio
    1600 Campus Rd., Los Angeles

     

    Friday, December 9 at 7:00pm
    Pasadena Conservatory of Music, Recital Hall
    100 North Hill Avenue, Pasadena

     

    Saturday, December 10 at 7pm
    City of West Hollywood, Council Chambers
    625 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood

     

    Sunday, December 11 at 2pm
    City of West Hollywood, Council Chambers
    625 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood

     

    Thursday, December 15 at 7:00pm
    Santa Monica Public Library, Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium
    601 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica

     

    Friday, December 16 at 12:15pm
    Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall
    135 N Grand Avenue, Los Angeles

     

    Saturday, December 17 at 4:00pm
    First United Methodist Church of Pasadena
    500 East Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena


    Open House Today!

    From 9:30am to 5pm today (Saturday, November 5), we’re throwing open the doors of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for a day full of fun, free activities and performances. Highlights include concerts with Placido Domingo and singers from our young artist program at 11am and 12:45pm, as well as numerous activities specially created for kids. Come on over and join us!


    Open House on November 5

    Help us celebrate LA Opera’s 25th anniversary at an Open House from 9:30am to 5pm on Saturday, November 5. We’ve planned a day-long series of fun, free activities  to showcase the fascinating world of opera, taking place in every part of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Events include Young Artist concerts jointly conducted by Placido Domingo and James Conlon, family operas created with younger folks in mind, backstage tours, screenings, and up-close looks at scenery, props and costumes. All ages are welcome! All events are offered free of charge, although selected events will require a ticket for entry due to limited availability. Advance tickets to the two concerts, the family program Sing Out Loud, and to the backstage tours are available now and can be reserved online by clicking here or by phone at (213) 972-8001. (There will be a $1 per order handling fee and a four-ticket limit per household.)

    Scheduled Open House events include:

    Art Workshops for Children
    9:30am to 2:45pm, Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall, Hope Street side
    Two different hands-on art workshops will be offered throughout the day to children ages 4 to 10. Using opera as inspiration, children can make their own opera-themed finger puppets or decorate a postcard to send to a loved one.

     

    The Prospector
    10am and 3pm, Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall
    Two performances of the 30-minute children’s opera by composer Lee Holdridge and librettist Richard Sparks, inspired by Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West. The opera is geared toward children aged 4 to 10 and their families.

     

    Scenic and Costume Presentations
    10:30am and 3:30pm, 3rd Floor Lobby
    Get a 20-minute, up-close look at the elaborate costumes and scenic elements that transform the stage into a magical world.

     

    Young Artist Concerts Conducted by Plácido Domingo and James Conlon11am and 12:45pm, Main Auditorium, ticket required
    Conductors Plácido Domingo and James Conlon share the podium for two concerts with the LA Opera Orchestra, featuring soloists from the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program in excerpts from favorite operas. Seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Due to anticipated demand, advance passes (free) should be reserved to insure admission into the auditorium. There will be a live simulcast in the downstairs Green Room for overflow audiences.

     

    Post-Concert Q&A
    11:45am and 1:30pm, Main Auditorium, packaged with Young Artist Concert ticket
    What is it like to perform in the world’s great opera houses? Find out in two post-concert roundtable discussions with Plácido Domingo and James Conlon.

     

    Sing Out Loud
    11:45am and 1:30pm, Founders Room, ticket required
    Sing Out Loud is a 30-minute, interactive introduction to opera for children and their families, featuring some of opera’s “greatest hits.” The performance is geared toward children aged 4 to 10 and their families. The Founders Room is located on the Hope Street side of the theater, one floor above the main level. Seating is limited; passes (free) should be reserved in advance.

     

    Screening: La Damnation de Faust
    1:30pm, Downstairs Green Room
    LA Opera’s 2003 production of Berlioz’s grand-scaled masterpiece, featuring Paul Groves, Samuel Ramey and Denyce Graves, in a one-of-a-kind staging by director Achim Freyer.

     

    Meet the Artists
    2pm, South Lobby (Grand Avenue side)
    Plácido Domingo and James Conlon will be available to autograph programs, CDs and DVDs. Items will be available for purchase in the main lobby’s Opera Shop.

     

    Backstage Tours
    2pm and 3:30pm, tickets required
    Take a closer look at the sets and costumes for Roméo et Juliette with 45-minute guided backstage tours.

     

    Screening: La Traviata
    4pm, Downstairs Green Room
    LA Opera’s 2006 production of Verdi’s beloved tragedy, starring Renée Fleming and Rolando Villazón, in a sumptuous production by Marta Domingo.

     

    Scenery and Prop Display
    All day, 3rd Floor Lobby (Grand Avenue side)
    See how a designer’s vision makes it to the stage through set models, designers’ renderings and photos.

     

    Costume and Wig Displays
    All day, 3rd Floor Lobby (Hope Street side)
    Regular clothes may make the man, but highly detailed costumes and wigs help singers make magic. Some of our best will be on display throughout the day.

     

    LA Opera History Project
    All day, 4th Floor Lobby
    Share your LA Opera story. What was your first opera? Who are your favorite performers? Your reminiscences will be filmed as part of the permanent history of LA Opera.

     

    Welcome Booths
    All day, Main Lobby
    Hosted by the Opera League of Los Angeles and Hispanics for Los Angeles Opera

     


    James Conlon: Lyrical Scenes from Pushkin’s Poems

    Stripped to its bones, the dynamic energizing 19th-century Italian operatic melodramas can be said to be drawn from one enduring myth: that of Romeo and Juliet, observed Italian writer Massimo Mila. In tragedies and melodramas, a hero and heroine (usually lovers) struggle with rivals or inimical forces that thwart their love until death separates them forever. 

    Not so in Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse of the same name. Its protagonists are alive in the end, their love is never fulfilled, and the only villains or forces are those within themselves.

    Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is tragic, whereas Pushkin recounts his story with detached irony. The genius of the novel is in the style of the telling, the triumph of the music is the way in which it stirs emotions. Selecting only the tragic narrative from Pushkin, the composer fulfilled his stated intention: “set to music everything in Onegin that demands music.” Nothing more. He transforms a larger than life portrait of an era into a personal tragedy of failed love.

    This fall, LA Opera produces two operas drawn from great literature: Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, based on William Shakespeare’s tragedy, and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, taken from Pushkin. It seems the right time to return to an enduring question. Must a composer be faithful to the original when setting an important work of literature to music, rendering both spirit and text? Or can the source be used solely as a point of departure for the composer’s muse?

    Music and literature are not and cannot be the same thing. Musical notes and words evoke emotions through opposite means. Music, received through the senses, stimulates an emotional response which then can be analyzed in turn by the intellect. The written word, grasped initially by the intellect, can, if so intended, move us. The oft-repeated maxim is “Music starts where words stop.” Attempts to reduce music’s “meaning” to words are futile.

    Most composers, while insisting on free adaptation, stay close to the source, altering it to fit their needs and those of their era. For example, most of Europe and Russia only knew Shakespeare through rough and often inaccurate translations and willful “rearrangements.” At worst, there are glaring examples of abuse (Rossini’s Otello has a happy ending). Every opera based on a literary source must reduce words, plot and length.

    Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin has endeared itself to a large international public. He called it “lyrical scenes in three acts,” avoiding the word opera. He was profoundly aware that he was setting to music one of the great masterpieces of Russian literature, if not the greatest. Pushkin’s novel defined a new age. Onegin set the standard for, towered over and inspired the future of Russian literature. Tchaikovsky, cognizant he could only select a part of the work, approached his source with humility and reverence. He was criticized for fundamentally changing the nature of the work, diluting its cerebral irony in return for heightened sentiment. His defenders argued that the coherence and inner strength of the opera merits admiration rather than censure. He has, like most composers, followed his muse. He was more successful than most in creating an enduring and compelling work that justifies itself and needs no apology. He has spoken to us through music what Pushkin’s words had spoken to him.

    Pushkin’s novel is an all-embracing view of Russian life and society, written with ironic distance from its characters. Cerebral, witty, satiric in turns, he never allows the reader to feel too deeply for its protagonists, nor weep or rejoice with them. The skeptic in him, and in Onegin himself, prevents this.

    Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, identifies with his characters, first and foremost Tatiana. Pushkin speaks in the first person through verse as rich in editorial comment as in narrative. Tchaikovsky does not narrate from afar, but empathizes deeply with each of the richly drawn personalities. Tchaikovsky is primarily a Romantic who pours out his own heart through his music. His orchestra is not like Wagner’s, which is an omniscient universe surrounding the drama in time and space. It only “knows” the emotions at the moment they are expressed, singing, yearning and raging with its counterparts on stage.*

    Unlike Tchaikovsky, Pushkin is only a Romantic in the sense that he reserves the right to improvise and wander out of the narrative when his fancy dictates. Otherwise, he is a Classicist, to which his disciplined use of form and poetic symmetry attest. For example, he created the Onegin Stanza, a unique rhyming scheme which unifies this extensive work. Tchaikovsky, conversely, was a Classicist when he wanted or needed to be, and his admiration of Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven and, above all, Mozart is evident throughout.

    Onegin’s character is not one to evoke sympathy. Although he is Pushkin’s invention (and said to be Pushkin himself), he has literary predecessors in Lord Byron’s (1788-1824) Childe Harold and Manfred. Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron’s erstwhile lover, coined the term “Byronic Hero” to describe characters “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. A critical description of his peculiar type of hero includes:

    Arrogant, cunning and able to adapt, cynical, disrespectful of rank and privilege, emotionally conflicted, bipolar, moody, having a distaste for social institutions and norms, intelligent and perceptive, jaded, world weary, mysterious, magnetic and charismatic, seductive and sexually attractive, self critical and introspective, self destructive, socially and sexually dominant, sophisticated and educated, treated as an exile, outsider, outcast or outlaw

    This exhaustive list renders any further description of Onegin’s character superfluous. It is he. Clearly Tchaikovsky is attracted to him and his “type,” so much so that shortly after Onegin, he turned his gaze on Manfred, finishing a symphony that bears his name, in 1885.

    The composer also identifies with Onegin’s best friend, the young, un-Byronic poet Lensky, betrothed to Olga, Tatiana’s sister. He dies in Act Two, having been shot to death in a duel (a premonition of Pushkin’s own death) by Onegin; not, however, before pouring out his (and Tchaikovsky’s) heart in an aria that has found its place in the pantheon of the tenor repertory. His relationship with his charismatic and fatally self-absorbed friend is complex, beautifully rendered in Pushkin’s words: “wave and stone, verse and prose, ice and flame.” Lensky’s youthful, ardent poetic character appeals deeply to the composer.

    But it is Tatiana who has completely won the composer’s heart. He was so attracted to her that, no sooner had he sketched a scenario for the entire work, he immediately wrote the letter scene, in which Tatiana gives voice to her passion for Onegin, in a flash of fevered inspiration as intense as Tatiana herself. So perfect and inspired, this scene could stand by itself, and often does, on the concert stage. The daughter of a “pomeshchik” (landed estate owner), she became the most famous and beloved heroine of Russian literature. She could not express herself in Russian, Pushkin tells us (the famous letter was written in French, the lingua franca of the Russian aristocracy) yet she embodies the Russian soul.

    Tatiana derives her heroic status from her metamorphosis. She begins life as shy, modest girl, who loves ardently if not wisely, defies convention by confessing that love in a letter, and resigns herself with dignity when humiliated. She becomes a sophisticated princess of high society, who defends duty and commitment, denying herself the very love she so craved.

    So: no hero, no villain, except perhaps half of both in Onegin’s conflicted Byronic character. At the end, neither of the two principal characters dies, nor are they reconciled. Their tragedy is that they must live, albeit a diminished, loveless life. Tatiana renounced her great love when it was finally reciprocated. Onegin killed his best friend and ignored his chance for an authentic, enduring love. The tragedy is that of bad timing, unfortunate choices and missed opportunity. It is the tragedy of the passing of two ships in the night, not once, but twice.

    *Note: By his own admission, Tchaikovsky was most comfortable writing abstract, instrumental music, in which there was neither an obligation to the word nor constraint to the extravagant emotional content of his music. His fourth symphony, a kindred spirit, was written virtually contemporaneously with Eugene Onegin. It shares the famous “fatum” or destiny motif.

    James Conlon, the conductor of Eugene Onegin, is LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director.


    Pas de Deux: Tchaikovsky Interprets Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin

    By Leann Davis Alspaugh

    It was just another Moscow dinner party. Madame Lavronsky’s dull husband was talking his usual nonsense. Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was about to give up the evening as a total loss when the guests began to talk about suitable subjects for opera. What about Eugene Onegin, the gracious hostess suggested. Tchaikovsky said nothing—who would be bold enough to take on Russia’s greatest work of literature and translate it for the opera stage? 

    “Then when I supped alone in a tavern, I remembered Onegin,” he wrote to his brother in 1877. “Then it gripped me, and before I had finished my meal, I came to a decision. I hurried off at once to find a Pushkin, found one with some difficulty, went home and read it with enthusiasm, and spent an entirely sleepless night, the result of which was the scenario of an enchanting opera on Pushkin’s text.”

    Tchaikovsky delighted in Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel about Tatiana the dreamy country girl, Lensky the fatal romantic, and Onegin the heartless dandy. What drew his enthusiasm was probably not the story, a rather banal tale of unrequited love and passion. Rather, Tchaikovsky was intrigued by the details about everyday life and the way that the author fleshed out his characters. The way Pushkin tells his story is also compelling. He gives it a tone of intimacy as if he were regaling guests at a Russian country estate. Outside, dusk is dimming the lilacs in the allée, and the songs of the peasants are fading over the wheat fields. Inside, the lady of the house bustles around the tea table with its bubbling samovar, caraway cakes and jugs of bilberry wine.

    Pushkin deftly evokes these kinds of homey details as well as the porcelain and amber richness of the St. Petersburg ballrooms. But unlike the genre pictures of another great Russian stylist, Turgenev, Pushkin’s world is condensed into sharp focus by the exigencies of poetry. He zooms in on his protagonist’s nasty disposition and his heroine’s fecklessness—“The flirt has reason’s cool volition;/Tatiana’s love is no by-play, she yields to it without condition/like a sweet child.” He uses wit and sarcasm—“one raves in verse like me!”—to keep his tone conversational. The result is a naturalistic portrait not of types, but of real people.

    Tchaikovsky wrote that he approached Eugene Onegin warily, humbled by his audacity in tackling this sacrosanct work. Yet, he let his enthusiasm be guided by Pushkin’s example, namely, the poet’s use of tightly controlled structure and telling detail to achieve psychological insight. In the opera, Tchaikovsky aims to achieve something similar by focusing on how two of society’s most mundane activities, letter-writing and dancing, can be used to illuminate character.

     

    The Letter
    When he came to write the music for Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky began with Tatiana’s passionate love letter to Onegin. In Pushkin’s verse novel, this letter is a bald confession uninflected by any of the usual literary devices. Tatiana’s “careless language of surrender” is a mad gesture—only Onegin’s sense of honor can protect such a free, unaffected outpouring of emotion. He must return either her letter or her love. Re-reading his Pushkin, Tchaikovsky was struck by Tatiana’s courage and indignant at the unworthy object of her love.

    He was immersed in composition, finding in Tatiana a muse and a sympathetic victim, when he received a letter not unlike the one written by his heroine. For several months, the composer and his former pupil, Antonina Milyukova, continued to correspond, and she offered him her heart and hand. He told her he could only offer her brotherly love, and she assured him that she was willing to accept that. They announced their engagement in May 1877. Already struggling with his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky promptly took off for his librettist’s country estate near Moscow.

    By the end of June, Tchaikovsky had two-thirds of Eugene Onegin completed. He and Antonina married in July, but he soon realized that he had made a horrible mistake. They lived together for 20 days without consummating the marriage. Nervous and ill, he left for his sister’s estate in Ukraine, and then returned to Moscow. He stayed with his wife for 12 days and then left for good. He traveled to Switzerland and Italy where he completed Eugene Onegin in January 1878.

    Tchaikovsky could hardly have failed to remark on the coincidence of a fateful letter appearing in both Pushkin’s story and his own life. His emotional susceptibility at this period no doubt led him to turn to his own musical language to depict the characters in the opera. One of the ways he did this was to associate different keys with certain characters and ideas. Early on in the opera, Tchaikovsky assigns Onegin the key of G. The peasants’ khorovod dance and folk songs are associated with B-flat major. However, Tchaikovsky does not give Tatiana a strong musical identity until the letter-writing scene in which she sings in the key of D-flat major.

    Prior to that scene, Tatiana is depicted as innocent and romantic, suffering alongside the unhappy lovers in the book that she is reading. Her mother, who confesses to having once been an avid reader of Richardson’s novels (all epistolary), cautions her daughter not to believe everything she reads. Their neighbor Lensky then arrives and introduces Onegin to the family. Lensky is the fiancé of Tatiana’s silly sister Olga, and the love poetry that he writes to her isn’t (it must be admitted) any more original than the girl to whom it is directed. Between her reading, Lensky’s love poetry, and her own dreamy temperament, Tatiana is ripe for infatuation. So far, the written word has dominated Tatiana’s intellect—this and the essentially Russian resignation to the whims of fate. With her letter to Onegin, however, Tatiana turns the power of words to her own uses in a surprisingly bold and independent move.

    In the aria he wrote for her, Tchaikovsky reveals Tatiana to be a far better poet than Lensky could ever hope to be. Her innocence is a guarantee for her authenticity. He also places Tatiana in a unique position, one often occupied by male characters in Russian literature. When she sings “I am alone…no one understands me and I must perish in silence,” she seems to be taking on the character of the “superfluous man,” the Russian literary type who is an outcast because he does not follow society’s values and standards. Granted, in Pushkin, this character is clearly Onegin, the aristocrat whose actions lead to senseless death and the tragedy of a purposeless life. Within the confines of the opera, however, Tatiana takes on that role when she pens a confessional letter to a strange man, transgressing all that society deems permissible for an unmarried girl. “Perhaps, I have an entirely different destiny,” she sings, invoking fate and honor in a declaration that is almost masculine in its clear-headed assertiveness. Later, Onegin will write a similar passionate letter to Tatiana, strengthening not only the construction of the narrative, but also adding dramatic significance to something as seemingly innocuous as ink on paper.

    The Dance
    With a composer like Tchaikovsky, so well known for his ballets, the element of dance in Eugene Onegin cannot be ignored. Like letter-writing, dancing was common but full of expressive opportunities. In polite society, dancing was the only socially sanctioned activity in which a man might hold a woman close in thrilling, synchronized movement. The opportunity to see and be seen, to gossip, or to flirt added to the excitement.

    In Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky draws not only on European dance tradition, but also on Russian folk dances and songs. In Act I, a peasant chorus dances the traditional khorovod and sings about maidens and a lad as “fresh as a raspberry” who carries a cudgel and bagpipes. The foreshadowing of the arrival of Onegin and his effect on Tatiana is clear, but, as dance historian Roland John Wiley points out, to integrate a simple peasant dance dramatically into opera was a new idea. In the operas of Glinka, for example, dance served as an interlude, interrupting the action for a dash of local color. Dance, for Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, while it certainly allowed for musical shifts and eye-catching choreography, also reinforced the narrative arch and added dimension to the characters.

    In Act II, Tatiana is chagrined to see that Onegin has had the temerity (and poor taste) to show up at her name-day party after having received her letter and rebuffed her. To add insult to injury, he then asks her to dance, but quits abruptly when he overhears people gossiping about him. He decides to show these bumpkins how it is done in Petersburg and begins a vigorous flirtation with Olga. Lensky is deeply insulted, especially because Olga has been dancing to all the most romantic music with Onegin rather than with her sensitive poet-lover.

    While it is true that a ballroom scene allows Tchaikovsky to display all of his prodigious skill at waltz composition, it also serves a deeper function in the opera. The spectacle of the whirling dancers and the musical momentum lulls us into complacency—what can go wrong at a country dance? The dancing is then interrupted, first by Monsieur Triquet’s inept French verses and then by Lensky’s anger. His hateful words and the crowd’s reaction is a jarring stop to the delicious waltz. As Lensky throws down the gauntlet, it is impossible to forget that Pushkin himself died from wounds following a duel in 1837.

    Tchaikovsky also used stylized movement in the duel scene. This “dance of death,” if you will, was dictated by what Lensky’s punctilious second Zaretsky calls “strict rules and old traditions.” Zaretsky instructs the men where to stand and when to aim their pistols. To reinforce the idea of coordinated movement, Onegin and Lensky sing not independently, but together of how they used to be friends, but must now kill in premeditated cold blood. The interruption of the “dance” here is the pistol shot that fells Lensky.

    Act III opens several years later with a ball in the Gremin palace, where Tatiana now lives as wife to an old warrior, Prince Gremin. The waltz music here is richer and more complex than that heard at Tatiana’s name-day party. Tchaikovsky picks up the pace with a polonaise and an écossaise. These popular dances, ones that raced like wildfire through European high society, had simple folk beginnings, a Pushkinian irony that Tchaikovsky no doubt relished. In the middle of this brilliant scene, Onegin, once a top-flight dandy, is now seen as a moping eccentric and even “the glitter of society doesn’t dispel [his] melancholy.”

    By the third act, both dancing and letter-writing have become more than just quaint cues to the distant past. Trapped in the heat and crush of the ballroom, Onegin belatedly realizes that he loves Tatiana. He writes her an impassioned latter (sharing the language of her letter-writing aria) and he is rejected. Tatiana refuses to take Onegin as a lover, keeping her sacred vow of marriage. Again, she is almost masculine in her sense of integrity and honor. Inexorable fate has prevented both Onegin and Tatiana from having the kind of life they imagined. All of their movements and all of their letters have led to nothing, a useless expenditure of energy.

    Tchaikovsky could never have been satisfied with this note of pessimism. For him, as for Pushkin, creative engagement—with words and music—was an affirmation and an end in itself. The poet might have agreed with Tchaikovsky, who said of his opera, “If ever music was written with sincere passion, with love for the story and the characters in it, it is the music for Onegin…. If the listener feels even the smallest part of what I experienced when I was composing this opera, I shall be utterly content and ask for nothing more.”

    Leann Davis Alspaugh is a frequent contributor to LA Opera’s performance programs.