January 16, 2020

My favorite memory of "Cinderella" is.... a mistake...

As I mentioned in last week's post, I was cast as Don Magnifico in a 1997 production of Rossini's La Cenerentola by Virginia Commonwealth University's Opera Theater. One especially pleasurable moment from those performances has led to a minor OPERA MYSTERY that nearly drove me nuts in trying to reconstruct it for you Gentle Readers.

The moment I always savored most came in the great Quintet of Act 1. This ensemble, like all of Rossini's elaborate set-pieces for multiple characters, is structured like a multi-movement instrumental work such as a sonata or concerto. 

The first section is in C major. In a vigorous Allegro theme, Cenerentola begs her stepfather (me!) to let her go to Prince Ramiro's ball along with her two step-sisters. 
Magnifico lashes out at her, calling her lazy and hurling threats against her as the Prince (in disguise) fumes and Dandini (pretending to be the Prince) cautions against abusing the servant girl. Magnifico claims that Cenerentola is not his daughter and thus cannot attend.

The second section, marked Moderato in the key of E flat, features the philosopher Alidoro, bearing a census document certifying that Magnifico has three daughters. Pressed to explain how it is that there are only two in the house, Magnifico blurts out that the third daughter died.

Now we come to the third "movement" of the Quintet, and the moment that has baffled me in reacquainting myself with this opera. Employing a device common to many Rossinian Act 1 ensembles, there is a "freeze" while all characters express their private reactions to Magnifico's dramatic announcement and speculate about what will happen next.

Back in 1997 I got to begin this section with a solo line consisting of a theme in A flat Major that is then repeated by the other characters one at a time. The English translation of the text reads:

On the ecstatic faces of this one and that one, one can read the whirl of their thinking that sways, doubts, and  remains uncertain. (Translation courtesy of my Italian friend Mariangela Rodilosso. Grazie, cara!)

I always looked forward to that moment, even more than either of my arias. It was a moment in which a frenetic musical texture suddenly quieted and the spotlight momentarily fell on me; it was up to me, in that moment, to "keep the show rolling" and sing with grace and wit. I was conscious of the importance of not letting my castmates down; not letting the energy flag with a limp utterance. I relished that responsibility. 

I can only compare it to being on a football team and being the one player who's got the ball; who the rest of the team is counting on to advance it down the field; to NOT "drop the ball".

I have not seen or heard any of this music in the intervening 22 years. As I've now turned my attention to preparing for my upcoming classes and lectures on the opera, I leafed through the piano-vocal score in search of that phrase.

Then something weird happened.

I found it, but it was marked as Dandini's line, NOT Magnifico's. I stared in disbelief:


Was I crazy? DANDINI SINGS IT??? There is no doubt in my mind: in 1997, I, Glenn Winters, Your Humble Blogger - I sang that line. But how? Why?

This was confounding. I sent an email to Melanie Kohn Day, the Musical Director of VCU's Opera Theater, both in 1997 and now, in the hopes that she could 1) confirm that my memory is correct, and 2) explain the mystery.

Have you ever emailed someone and been frustrated when they didn't reply immediately? Melanie's a busy person, yet I confess that, irrationally, I checked my inbox every 10 minutes to see if she had any answers, so great was my need to know.

(Side note: that I was in such a state of frustrtion over a matter that 99.9% of humanity would consider to be trivial and of no real importance, is proof that I was a doctoral student. It just doesn't get more "doctoral" than this, folks. The amazing thing is that I'm limiting myself to a mere blog post and not a 200-page scholarly dissertation...)

I started thinking about editions of music.

There is a website called the International Music Score Library Project (imslp.com). It's an online archive of classical scores in the public domain. Quickly going online, I looked for vocal scores of Cenerentola and clicked on the 1878 piano-vocal score published by Ricordi. I scrolled down furiously until I came to the A-flat section. And there it was: MY LINE, just as I remembered it:

"D. Mag." it says; "D. Mag". I KNEW IT! I'M NOT INSANE!

It turns out that the assignment of this line to Magnifico was a typo.

A typo.

A simple error that was corrected in the revised critical Ricordi piano-vocal score of 2004, the one that (of course) Virginia Opera, as well as all opera companies world-wide, now use routinely.

The irony to all of this is that this moment of music - this mistake - this phrase that had no business coming out of my mouth - was by far my favorite moment in the entire opera. I still bask in the memory of it.

There's probably a life-lesson to be learned here, but I'm darned if I know what it is.....

January 10, 2020

My bittersweet memories of Rossini's Cinderella

There are times when performing on stage, be it as actor or musician, is a blessing for the temporary distraction it can provide from the stress and pain of real life.
My father, Glenn Winters Sr.

About a half-dozen years ago I posted a piece on this site about the intersection of my opera career with the final stages of my mother's life. You can read it here. Now Virginia Opera is in rehearsals for a production of Rossini's Cinderella (La Cenerentola) and that's my cue to post another highly personal memoir. This time it involves my father, Glenn Winters Sr.

I spent the 1990's heading the Community School of the Performing Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Each spring the Music Department's opera theater presents a fully-staged opera with orchestra. The limitation they often faced during my time there was a shortage of basses and baritones to play the buffo/daddy roles. All my degrees are in piano, but I sing well enough to get by in such circumstances. As an opera singer, I'm the pack of cards you stick under a wobbly table leg as a stopgap if you're having people over for dinner.

In this context I've had the joy of being cast in roles for VCU and other venues that I'd never get to sing otherwise, doing my best in Offenbach, Sondheim, Menotti, Cimarosa, Kirk Mecham, Johann Strauss, Gilbertt and Sullivan, Rossini and four roles in works of Mozart. The VCU production for Spring, 1997 was Rossini's Cinderella. The cast included Matt Burns, an undergraduate who has gone on to have a fine professional career, singing opera all over the United States, including several principal roles for Virginia Opera. He was our Dandini, but that still left open the role of Don Magnifico, so I agreed to take it on as a "guest artist".

This was a gargantuan undertaking! This role --- OY! Two lengthy arias, another solo with chorus, every concievable ensemble and several boatloads of recitative. Not the least of the challenges for me was a passage in the Act 2 aria in which Magnifico imitates a woman's voice, singing in falsetto.

I lack a falsetto and that's a fact. I listen to baritones who easily slip into head voice and marvel, especially when they play Puccini's Marcello in Act 4 of Bohème. When I try falsetto, it comes out like an elderly moose in heat. With the adreneline of the performance giving me some extra oomph I managed in the end to crank out something audible. Call it unintentional comedy.

But my memories of Cenerentola are dominated by extra-musical circumstances of the greatest stress imaginable.

On opening night of April 19, my father was clinging to life at Williamsburg Community Hospital, 50 miles away from the theater.

Dad had been retired since the early 80's from his career as Executive Director of the American Judicature Society in Chicago. The AJS is an organization of attorneys working to improve the administration of justice in the United States and around the world. He traveled the nation and the world, helping to root out corruption in the selection of judges by implementing a merit system to replace backroom politics.

In retirement in Virginia, he was a heart attack survivor and a champion of puttering around the house, battling the raccoons who invaded his garbage cans, nursing the Crepe Myrtle trees that were his pride and joy, and (naturally) doting on my sixth-grade daughter.

And earlier that day, the morning of April 19, 1997, when VCU's spring opera would open hours later, he staggered and fell to the floor in a local drug store while shopping with my mother. It was a stroke - a bad one.

As for me, there was nothing to be done; there was no understudy to step in and cover Magnifico for me. I had to drive up Interstate 64 the 74 mile trip from my home to the theater in a fog of shock and dawning anxiety. There were no cell phones in those days, making it no simple matter to obtain updates.

Dad was in bad shape; I knew he might not live through the night.

I realized that it would be important to keep this crisis undisclosed other than to the production's stage director and music director. Burdening the student cast, orchestra and the stagehands was out of the question: they had a challenging enough evening ahead of them.

Mugging shamelessly backstage as Don Magnifico
I found that hanging around the large room where makeup was being applied and wigs affixed in an atmosphere of giddy high spirits was intolerable. Whispering an explanation to faculty colleagues, I made my way up from the basement level to the wings of the stage where I could begin to collect my thoughts in the silence and darkness.

I do have vivid memories of the performance itself - it's like watching a highlight reel in my mind's eye. Now, over two decades later, renewing my acquaintance with Rossini's score (which I've not heard from then til now) is a phenomenon that produces a strange brew of nostalgia and unhappy memory.

As for my father, he survived the night and the next several months, but was never the same. Soon after he was assigned to a rehab center, but the damage to his brain, and thus his personality, was dramatic and permanent. The father I'd known was gone, replaced by a man who suddenly didn't know where he was or what was happening.

He had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. Any of you who have experienced this horror with a loved one will be familiar with the destruction it wreaks on the individual and the family. My father, a devout Christian, was now a stranger with a hair-trigger temper who punched his nurses and wandered the rehab hallways trying to water plastic ferns. The following year he succombed to congestive heart failure.

It was awful not to be with my mother and my wife during that first perilous night of his stroke and hospitalization. But I have to admit, with selfish guilt, that I remain grateful to Gioacchino Rossini and Don Magnifico for the fleeting hours of distraction they provided on a harrowing evening.

November 18, 2019

Il Postino and the Italian street band tradition

Daniel Catán's Il Postino  opens with a short prologue during which a politician seeking votes makes a campaign speech on the island of Calla di Soto. I'd love to provide a link to this scene, but unfortunately only fragments of the opera are available online. So instead, here's a portion of his vocal line:
It continues in that vein, bouncing merrily along in perky dotted rhythms.

The first thing I notice about this tune is the clear influence of Puccini, specifically the military march played by an onstage band in Act 2 of La bohème:
Meter and dotted rhythms are similar. What distinguishes the two passages is all due to context. The band entertaining revelers in Puccini's Latin Quarter is a snazzy, polished wind ensemble, well-rehearsed and professional. Di Cosimo, on the other hand is accompanied by a rag-tag ensemble of what are evidently volunteers. The political jingle they're tooting along with thus strikes us as banal and unimpressive compared with Bohème.
Before you conclude that Catán is no Puccini, consider another aspect of context: Di Cosimo is the villain of the opera. He's no earnest, sincere "man of the people", though he would have the citizenry think so; he's a sleazy pol who makes empty promises he has no intention of keeping. Thus his unimpressive music aptly characterizes him.

Another aspect of Di Cosimo's song interests me: that ragtag ensemble fits nicely into the long tradition of Italian street bands. Although the composer's main agenda was to create a truly Hispanic opera in an international style, one sung in Spanish and featuring poems with roots in the literature of Chile, Mexico, Spain and Nicaragua, he never lost sight of the actual setting: an Italian village. 

Street bands are an Italian tradition akin to the tradition of street jazz in New Orleans. Examples can be found in opera and literature. Francis Ford Coppola uses repeated scenes of street bands throughout his Godfather trilogy, beginning with the scene in which Michael Corleone marries a local woman while hiding in Sicily As with Di Cosimo's number, this music is clearly played with more enthusiasm than artistry. Similar street bands appear in Godfather II when the young Vito Corleone returns to Sicily and is welcomed as a celebrity by a ragtag street band. Their rough-and ready playing contrasts sharply with the opening scene of the same film, when a professional band plays slick Hollywood-style music to honor the Corleone family in Nevada, a metaphor for Michael's corruption and betrayal of the values he once held.

Even Giuseppe Verdi employed street bands for specific purposes at times. The best example is found in his adaptation of Macbeth. In Act 1, King Duncan visits Macbeth's castle, unaware that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have already decided to murder him. Duncan makes a brief appearance, crossing the stage with a retinue of courtiers upon his arrival. His procession is accompanied not by an actual street band, but by a facsimile of street-band music in the orchestra. It can be heard at the 26:35 mark in this video of Act 1. 

This music, like that given Di Cosimo, is banal and vulgar in comparison with the rest of the opera. Verdi usually gave majestic music to kings, as with King Philip II in Don Carlo. In Macbeth, I've always felt that the trite nature of Duncan's processional represents Macbeth's point of view: in order to commit cold-blooded murder, he must de-personalize and de-humanize his victim, reducing him to a two-dimensional stick figure. 

Yes, Il Postino is a sort of linguistic and cultural melange - an Italian title for a Spanish-language opera; an ancient Judeo-Spanish wedding song assigned to an Italian character; and other anachronisms. But Di Cosimo's prologue music is an example of being true to the setting with an authentic depiction of Italian culture.

November 11, 2019

Il Postino: a tale of two tenors

One of the most familiar tropes in operatic libretti is an early scene in which the tenor sings ardently of the soprano he loves. The first and last operas of Virginia Opera’s current season employ this device with Cavaradossi’s “Recondita armonia” in Tosca and the famous solo “Celeste Aida” in our closing production. Off the top of my head I can list others: The Barber of Seville; Un Ballo in Maschera; Manon Lescaut; and many others. It’s a “thing” in opera.
"Desnuda" (photo courtesy of Virginia Opera)

Does Il Postino follow suit? Yes, but with one big – and significant – difference. The first aria is given to Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet. As one might expect, most of Neruda’s solos are settings of selections from his poems; the first one is “Desnuda” (Naked), in which the character praises the beauty of his wife Matilde:
Naked, you are as simple as your hand,
Smooth, earthy, minimal, round, transparent,
You have lines of moonlight, paths of apple,
Naked you are like slender naked wheat.
Naked, you are blue, like a night in Cuba,
Vines and stars decorate your hair.
Naked you are tiny,
Naked you are rotund and golden, grandiose
Like summer in a golden temple.

Daniel Catán’s musical setting is ardent, tender and a touch exotic. But for all its attractiveness, the aria is also a definite break with tradition.  In the other operas listed above, the soprano character who is the object of the tenor’s affection is the female lead; the prima donna. However, the leading female role in Il Postino is Beatrice, not Matilde. Matilde proves to be a minor character. Veteran operagoers may thus be confused, expecting Matilde to be the focus of the story arc, when she proves to be a minor figure.

What accounts for this unconventional aspect of a conventional trope? There are a couple of explanations. One is born of practical considerations while the other has to do with the character of Mario Ruoppolo, the postman of the title and the other tenor role.

It’s well-known that the role of Neruda was created for, and with the collaboration of, tenor Placido Domingo, who sang it at the world premiere production in Los Angeles in 2010. Given that a new opera by a composer who was not a household name would not automatically generate box-office success, it seems clear that the chief draw would be Domingo’s superstar status. Logically, his name alone could be counted on to tempt those who are often wary of contemporary works to buy a ticket. 
There are people who would pay good money to hear a superstar singer walk out on a stage and just recite the white pages of the Norfolk phone book. Thus, Pablo Neruda gets the lion’s share of arias in Il Postino with four substantial solos in addition to ensembles. The L.A. audience came to see Domingo, thus: give the people what they want.

But why could Catán not have begun the show with an aria for Mario rhapsodizing about Beatrice? Neruda could still have sung all of his solos, after all. The reason is simple:

Mario wasn’t ready.

The opera is Mario’s coming-of-age journey. He begins as a shy, inarticulate, unemployed, uneducated young man drifting and dreaming through life. He lacks self-confidence; he worships women from afar but can’t summon up the gumption to speak to them.

He is not given an opening aria because, at this point, he has nothing to say. As noted in my previous post, his initial courtship of Beatrice is by proxy, relying exclusively on lines of Neruda's love poems. Once Neruda's influence on Mario begins to fade, his vocal writing gains in eloquence until, by the bittersweet finale, we discover (as noted in my previous post) a grown man who has found his path in life -- and has something to say.

Under different circumstances, the expected vocal casting might have suggested a baritone for the role of Pablo Neruda: an older man, scarred by life's adversities and speaking with more maturity and gravitas than the man-child Mario Ruoppolo. Yet the collaborative partnership of composer and celebrity tenor dictated yet another unconventional choice. Neither mild departure from theoretical "norms" have prevented Il Postino from having made its way into the repertoire since its debut in 2010.

Will it still be a repertory item in 20 years? 50? 100? The odds are against any particular opera having long-term success; the percentage of all operas ever written that have enduring popularity is statistically insignificant. But Catán’s wistful romantic comedy has been given every chance.

November 4, 2019

Il Postino: Mario, sittin' on the dock of the bay

Daniel Catán
Virginia Opera's season began, you'll recall, with a production of a classic: Puccini's Tosca. This opera opened with, in place of a prelude, five fortissimo chords in the full orchestra; they were powerful, dramatic, and more than a little ominous. As the action played out, we came to realize they were characterizing not only the villainous nature of Baron Scarpia, but the tyrannical Bourbon monarchy of which he was an agent.

In addition to identifying Scarpia, that sequence of chords also foretold the overall character of the opera itself: dramatic, intense, violent, passionate.

In the same fashion, the opening music of Act 1 of Daniel Catán's Il Postino also provides a wealth of information about the drama to come, in just thirty-odd seconds of orchestral scene-setting music:
(You can hear about half of the introduction as the opening 17 seconds of the Postino montage at this link.)

This music actually tells us three important things about the opera to come:
  1. In the mild harmony and spare texture of the music, we can infer what life is like on Calla di Soto, the island off the coast of Italy on which the story takes place. We will soon discover that the only "industry" on the island is fishing, but we can already tell that the pace of life there is serene, tranquil, and simple. No traffic jams, no high-powered corporate businessmen, - just life on the water.
  2. The music also describes the character of the central character Mario Ruoppolo. Now the music strikes us as dreamy (in fact, Mario will express the dream - however unrealistic - of moving to America some day). He is unemployed (fishing makes him seasick), largely uneducated, and sorely lacking in self-esteem.  As we meet him in Act 1, he might have sung along with Otis Redding:
    Sittin' on the dock of the bay,
    Watchin' the tide roll away;
    Sittin' on the dock of the bay,
    Wastin' time...
    Above all, however, Mario is a gentle soul. In his growing wonder at the discovery of poetic language; in his soft-spoken pursuit of the woman he loves, even in his moments of despair, his essential nature is that of a gentle soul.
  3. And that word "gentle" is key to the entire opera! There is a gentleness and wistfulness to the opening orchestral music that serves to characterize all of Il Postino. There will be no murders, suicides, plunging daggars, screams of agony or other remnants of Tosca here. It's a coming-of-age story tinged with hopes, dreams, disappointments and bittersweet romance. 
In fact, the final adjective in the final phrase of the libretto is "gentle".

Two climactic scenes demonstrate the fulfillment of the promise of the introductory music. In Act 3, Mario, having won the love of the barmaid Beatrice (in the course of three gentle, lyrical love duets), is dealt a crushing disappointment. Pablo Neruda, the man Mario came to regard as friend, mentor and father-figure during the weeks when he delivered mail to the poet, has written him from Chile. Expecting a warmly personal message, Mario is devastated when it proves to be merely an impersonal announcement from Neruda's secretary. Mario reacts with restrained, resigned sadness:
Admit it… Why should he remember me? As a poet, I’m not much good… As a postman? As a Communist? Not even that. It’s quite normal. Tomorrow we’ll send the rest of his things off.

A moment like this is a challenge for an operatic composer. To set these words properly requires the skill of writing music that allows the listener to feel Mario's pain as acutely as he does. Catán rises to this challenge with a finely-wrought expression that, however sorrowful, retains the character's implicit gentleness. Note especially the passage beginning at 2:20 in this video.

"Gentle" is also the best word to describe the closing scene of the opera. Neruda, returning to the island years after the period of his exile there, learns of Mario's untimely death. It becomes clear that the impersonal cruelty of the letter from Chile was, ironically, a blessing to the young ex-postman. Stripped of his idealized image of Pablo Neruda, Mario is forced to stop clinging to the poet's metaphorical coattails. Fairly worshiping Neruda, Mario arrested his own development in relying on the writer's words rather than finding his own voice (His courtship of Beatrice using images from Neruda's love poems places Il Postino squarely in the tradition of stories like Cyrano de Bergerac and the film recently awarded Best Picture at the Academy Awards, The Green Book.)

With the direct influence of Neruda no longer guiding him, Mario was forced to grow up; to live his own life; in short, to find his own voice. Beatrice recounts his awakening to corruption in local government (represented by the sleazy pol Di Cosimo) and his ensuing political activisim, culminating in his losing his life at a public demonstration.

In the final moments of the work, Neruda reads from a letter Mario left for him, a letter in which he shyly writes that, at last, he has written a poem:
I’ve been asked to read it in public. It’s about the sea, the sea you taught me to love, the sea of Italy. It’s dedicated to you, Don Pablo, from your friend Mario. It’s a song. Don Pablo, if you hadn’t come into my life, I would never have written it. It’s for you. And if my voice trembles, it’s the sea’s gentle tears.

This link will take you to a video of Mario's farewell. With the limitation of keyboard accompaniment in place of Catán's luminous orchestration, note how the affect of that opening orchestral introductory music returns. Now, in the context of all that has happened, we understand at last that in addition to serenity, simplicity and gentleness, this music was always tinged with melancholy as well.

Also note the final adjective in the quoted text. The opera ends as it began, having taken Mario and you and I on a journey of discovery: of poetic language, of romance and personal growth.

Is it a sad ending? By no means. I can think of nothing sadder than going through life with no self-esteem, no goals, no meaning to one's time on earth - no voice. Though Mario did not live to see the birth of his son, he packed a lot into his shortened life: he discovered the power of language; he wooed and won the love of his life; he found meaning in activism. He found his destiny.

The photo of Daniel Catán is by By PaulWie1 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48774776

October 30, 2019

Il Postino: when a production is unintentionally timely

My chief daily paper is the Washington Post. Lately the Post has published several stories about political unrest in the nation of Chile. As I write this, my attention was grabbed by a story with the headline: Chile cancels international conference, in which President Sebastián Piñera announced that the conference, scheduled for Nov. 15, has been scuttled due to a wave of protests. Previous stories have detailed peaceful protests in the capital city of Santiago in which as many as 1,000,000 citizens gathered to demonstrate against "issues of inequality". It is said that other demonstrations had turned violent, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency.
Pablo Neruda (d. 1973)

So why am I providing this recap of current events in a land some 5,000 miles away? In an opera blog?

Because the timing of this news couldn't be more conspicuously timely and relevant to Virginia Opera's soon-to-open production of Daniel Catán's Il Postino.

The opera, of course, is a fictional account of a period of exile during which the Chilean poet and statesman Pablo Neruda found himself persona non grata in his homeland. Chile has, for generations, been a hotbed of political strife; democratically elected governments (such as that led by the Socialist Salvatore Allende) have alternated with ruthless authoritarian regimes like that of Augusto Pinochet.

In the opera, Neruda, living on the (fictional) island of Calla di Soto off the coast of Italy, receives word from Chile of a terrible event: a peaceful demonstration by miners was disrupted by government forces with violent gunfire, leaving many dead.

As he processes this catastrophe, Neruda sings an aria with text by Catán, who is his own librettist. Here's an excerpt:
Chile, the blood of your children once again has been spilled.
Dead, so many dead...
tied, wounded, bitten, buried.
Tell me, Earth, tell me, Sea,
How much blood will be spilled?
How many tears will be wept?

It is, perhaps, uncanny that an opera on this theme, an opera chosen by Virginia Opera's management long before the events of recent days, would be staged at such a time when Art and Life coincide and imitate each other.

Or is it?

Aren't injustice, inequality and the repression of human rights always appearing and reappearing at every moment of our times? Of every time period? During the whole of human history?

Darn right they are. These same concerns were the driving issue of the events dramatized in our most recent production, Puccini's Tosca. Cavaradossi and Angelotti, remember, were fighting with the same passion toward the same end about the same societal wrongs.

It is, after all, the function of Art to be a mirror of human nature and human society.

Of course, in an ironic finale to Il Postino, the once-hapless, formerly inarticulate dreamer Mario Ruoppolo, the postman of the title, becomes awakened to corruption and injustice in his corner of the world, represented by the sleazy and corrupt politican Di Cosimo. In a flashback sequence, we see how Mario suffered the same fate as those Chilean miners eulogized in Neruda's lament.

A word about that aria. It appears to me to have been modeled after a passage from Verdi's Otello, specifically Otello's monologue "Dio, mi potevi scagliar". In that solo, Otello, having been tricked by Iago into believing that his wife is unfaithful, is in a black hole of despair, asking God why he has been given such an unbearable burden. Here is a searing performance by Placido Domingo (who also created the role of Neruda). Note two features in particular:a short repeated 4-note figure in the strings:
  1. a short repeated 4-note phrase in the strings: 
  2. the halting nature of the vocal line in the opening phrases, as if Otello was in such distress that he gasps, unable to catch his breath.

In Neruda's grief-stricken solo, Catán employs similar devices. (Unfortunately, an audio example is not yet available to provide here) A solo cello plays a short repeated figure, now three notes instead of four; Neruda sings in halting, gasping phrases at the outset.

Both solos rise to shattering climaxes. 

October 19, 2019

Catán's Il Postino and the curious state of Spanish opera

Quick - name your five favorite Spanish operas.

"Easy", you think, and start to rattle off titles: Carmen, The Barber of Seville, Il Trovatore, The Marriage of Figaro...

Stop!  Sorry to interrupt, but I didn't mean operas set in Spain; I meant operas written in Spanish by Hispanic composers.

And we're not counting zarzuela, a music drama tradition that international houses generally neglect. I mean operas intended for an international audience.

Now it gets tricky. Virginia Opera actually has staged a Spanish-language opera before: Thea Musgrave's Simón Bolívar, presented in 1995. But that should only count for a half-credit; the Spanish version was a translation of the libretto, and Ms. Musgrave is a native of Scotland. If an American sets a poem of Goethe to music, that doesn't make it a German lied, at least in the normal sense of the term.

Thus, Daniel Catán's Il Postino (2010) will be the company's first truly Hispanic opera. Catán, a Mexican, adapted the film of the same name about the Nobel prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. (While the title retains the Italian title of the popular Italian-language film for its marketing value, the libretto - also by the composer - is in Español.)

It's interesting to speculate on the reasons for the lack of a body of international operas from Spain and Mexico, especially in light of the fact that, just a few centuries ago, Spain was a global super-power.

One factor may be tied to geography. While Spain is part of the European continent, where opera flourished first in Italy but not long after in France and Germany, it's somewhat isolated from those regions by the barrier of the Pyranees as well as the Basque country. As the Basque people have been described as the least assimilated community of Western Europe, their culture has been something of a buffer between Spain and France.

As a result, Spanish culture absorbed other influences, such as Morocco (its nearest neighbor), Arab culture and the sizeable Sephardic Jewish population that was found in Spain prior to the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Beatrice, the lead soprano role in Il Postino, sings an aria called "Morenica", a setting of an ancient Judeo-Spanish wedding song; it's text, about a girl whose skin has been darkened by the sun, is said to be traceable back to the Song of  Songs of the Old Testament. Daniel Catán himself was of Sephardic Jewish descent.

These influences help to explain why the most characteristic Spanish instruments (guitar, castanets) are folk instruments rather than those belonging to the European symphonic tradition.

The big irony in the lack of Spanish operas suitable for international opera companies like the Met (and Virginia Opera) is that the Spanish language is very grateful to operatic vocal production, possibly more than French with its sometimes nasal properties and German with its gutteral consonants. Like Italian, Spanish features bright, open vowel sounds that help enable forward vocal projection.

By the way, here are the operas you might have named at the top of this post: de Falla's Atlàntida, Granados' Goyescas, Bretón's La Dolores, Ginasteras' Bomarzo and another work of Catán's, Florencia en el Amazonas.  Florencia was the first Spanish-language opera to be commissioned by a major American country, premiering at the Houston Grand Opera in 1996. It has been produced over a dozen times since then and may prove to enter the standard repertoire.