October 20, 2016

The deceptive cartoonishness of "The Barber of Seville"

Everyone - and I'm including hardened criminals serving life sentences in prison here - has seen the Bugs Bunny cartoon based on Rossini's The Barber of Seville (the next production upcoming for Virginia Opera). But I've been telling my students that Barber has an even closer connection to other Warner Brothers cartoon characters: Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.
Count Almaviva tries to enter Bartolo's house.

What happens in a Road Runner cartoon? Coyote wants to catch Road Runner, but it's difficult, so he comes up with crazy scheme after crazy scheme to get the job done. Roller skates with jet skis, painting a fake tunnel on the side of a mountain. etc. etc. The crazy schemes never work, ending in disaster.

In Rossini's opera, Rosina is the Road Runner, the "thing desired". Coyote is a combination of Almaviva and Figaro. Almaviva wants the "thing", but it's Figaro who devises crazy schemes to get his buddy into Bartolo's house. The first two schemes, in which Almaviva A) pretends to be a drunken soldier, and B) pretends to be Rosina's substitute music teacher, both go comically awry, ending in chaos. Of course, unlike Coyote, Almaviva eventually succeeds because he doesn't want to roast Rosina and eat her, he wants to marry her, and we're rooting for him.

I point out the cartoonishness of the plot to make the point that, as drama, neither Rossini's opera nor the 1775 Beaumarchais play on which it's based threaten King Lear or Long Day's Journey Into Night for serious messaging or depth of characterization. This show is escapist entertainment, right? The characters are one-dimensional stock figures from Commedia dell'Arte, right? I mean, Rosina is sweet & pretty & smart & sassy; Almaviva is likeable & dashing & handsome & funny; and so on.

Harmless, meaningless farce, right? Toe-tapping tunes and belly laughs and nothing more, right?

Not so much, in my opinion.

Remember that Barber is the first installment in a trilogy of Beaumarchais comedies (these days it would be called a "franchise") following Figaro, Almaviva and Rosina through the larger part of their adult lives, from youth to the onset of old age. The other two are 1781's The Marriage of Figaro (you may have encountered this title here or there...) and 1792's The Guilty Mother. 

My theory: no matter how well you know Rossini's The Barber of Seville, you don't really understand it until you consider it in the context of the other two plays.

While Marriage of Figaro still contains its share of crazy schemes and farcical humor, the cartoonish element has shrunk and the characters have taken on darker aspects. Almaviva, who was so winning in Barber, has been corrupted by wealth and privilege and is now a first-class TOOL. He ignores Rosina (now called the Countess) unless he suspects her of infidelity, in which case he flies off the handle. Furthermore, he's a degenerate skirt-chaser, spending the entire opera trying to get his wife's chambermaid into bed - ON HER WEDDING DAY. (Ewwww...) Rosina has lost her teenage sass and spunk; she's subdued and depressed, grieving for the loss of her husband's love. Figaro himself shows indications of having a temper and, what's more, he's not always quick on the uptake - not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Even when the Count turns to his better angels and begs Rosina's forgiveness, we in the audience feel uneasy about the supposed "happy ending", sensing that Almaviva will be on good behavior for a while, but eventually betray his wife again.

Yikes! What the hell happened to these people?

And then there are the clear political messages. Beaumarchais, an avid supporter of the American colonies in their revolt against King George of England, delighted in depicting an arrogant noble being defeated by two clever commoners. This caused the play to be banned by Louis XVI for three years, with tensions leading up to the French Revolution of 1789 already simmering.

And then there's the final play, which takes place 20 years after the events of Marriage of Figaro. In The Guilty Mother, the marriage of Rosina and Almaviva has, shockingly, become completely dysfunctional. The titular "guilt" consists of Rosina's having slept with the young page we met in the previous play (the girl-crazy Cherubino), and <GASP!> having borne his illegitimate son Léon. As for the Count he suspects that the boy may not be his though, with no proof, he can't end the marriage. Instead, he's arranging for Léon to have no inheritance. He's also given up his title, living now as a commoner in Paris.

Oh, and he's fathered a daughter by another woman. See? We were RIGHT about him.

It's up to Susanna and Figaro to help the troubled couple to make peace with their mistakes and enter their senior years with some degree of reconciliation.

HERE'S MY POINT: now that we've followed Rosina and Almaviva through their entire journey, we look back on the innocence of Barber differently. We realize that we were meant to fall in love with them upon our first meeting, in which case it was crucial that we not know anything bad about them.

Think about every great first date you ever went on. That other boy/girl was funny and charming; he/she made you laugh; you had so much in common! The same movies, the same values, the same ideas about politics and religion...

It might have only been after months of dating - or marriage - that flaws emerged. Intimacy lessens the urge to present only our best selves to our partners. meaning that now we observe that our partner leaves socks and underwear on the bathroom floor, tells raunchy jokes that make us cringe, doesn't always listen when we're speaking, and chews his/her nails.

The Barber of Seville is an operatic first date. We believe that the characters are uncomplicated and kind of perfect. The author wants us to bond with them; this will make us feel more deeply all the conflicting emotions brought about by the flaws that are introduced over time.

This stock figures are, in reality, just as complex and many-sided and believable as you and I.

In fact, look back on your own long-ago youth. (Here I'm assuming you're old like me!) Don't you smile wryly when you consider how simple life seemed to you as a teenager? Remember when you thought you had all the answers, and that "old people" (like Bartolo and Basilio) were easy targets for your superior wits and intelligence? Remember when life was a game that you were ALWAYS supposed to win? Remember when a crush felt like true love?


Look back on Rosina and Almaviva in the first play/opera as you look back on your own young adulthood: with bittersweet nostalgia brought about by the perspective that life's adversities always brings, even to fictional characters.

"Shallow farce"? I say not.

October 12, 2016

Blurring fiction and reality in "Pagliacci"

Enrico Caruso as Canio
Everyone knows that the finale of Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" is a play-within-a-play. The traveling clown troupe led by Canio, with a stage audience of chorus and extras gathered around to watch, enacts the same comedy they have performed innumerable times. We in the "real" audience have been provided key information that almost everyone in the stage audience lacks: that the comedy is mirroring recent off-stage events: Nedda, like the character she plays, has had an adulterous affair, and her cuckolded husband caught her in the act.

But there are levels of reality! We in the audience feel god-like in our omniscient awareness that two things are happening: A) the rapidly-devolving clown show, which lulled us into complacency for a while with its sight gags and rubber chickens; and B) the real unfolding tragedy that culminates with a "real" act of violence.

But the joke is on us: NONE OF IT IS REAL! We don't, actually, have "fiction" and "reality" happening simultaneously. Nedda doesn't really die! She'll come out in a minute and take a bow!

This blurring of fiction and reality is foreshadowed in the famous Prologue. We might not have had this classic baritone solo had not Victor Maurel, a super-star operatic singer who created many of Verdi's baritone roles, demanded an aria for Tonio. There being no way to insert another solo into the body of the libretto without destroying the rapid pace of the narrative, Leoncavallo opted to bring Maurel out in front of the curtain before the action.

This Prologue ends up being a kind of manifesto of the "nuova scuola" of Italian opera, most often called verismo (truth). Like a musical Martin Luther nailing his "treatises" on an opera house door, Leoncavallo lays out his story-telling ideal: This is not fake! It's REAL, I tell you! (Interestingly, moments later as the action begins, Canio contradicts Tonio, advising the villagers that "Life and the theater are not the same thing.)

But in the middle of the solo comes a most curious passage, one in which there is another intriguing blurring of the real and the artificial, one that, on reflection, causes a greater degree of confusion that does the clown show at the end.

Leoncavallo is on record as having claimed that the story of the opera was based on a true incident; a well-known murder trial that involved his father, Vincenze Leoncavallo, who presided over the trial as town magistrate. What's more, the crime had affected the family personally as the victim was a family associate.

Vincenze had hired a local youth, 22-year-old Gaetano Scavello to assist in raising his two sons, Ruggero (the future composer) and Leone. Scavello was in love with a village girl, but had competition: two brothers named D'Alessandro. Arguments, macho displays of "tough-guy" intimidation and naked jealousy quickly escalated until the day the brothers set a trap, laying in wait for Scavello. Each D'Alessandro set on the victim with a knife, resulting in charges of murder. These days, Vincenze would doubtless have recused himself from rendering judgement, but in any case, the brothers went away to life sentences at hard labor.

Now, you may take Leoncavallo at his word if you wish, and accept his assertion that the events described above bore fruit in the Pagliacci libretto. To be fair, both the actual crime and the opera share themes of jealousy over a woman and death by stabbing. But to Your Humble Blogger, that's weak tea. As stated in my last post, it seems clear that Verdi's Otello is the obvious model, buth in plot points, characterizations and even vocal styles.

Whatever the case, here's the fascinating element of the Prologue: Tonio begins referring to "our author"; that is, the composer of the opera; that is (I guess!!) none other than Ruggero Leoncavallo. Dig this:

"Our author has endeavoured .. to pain for you a slice of life. ... Deep-embedded memories stirred one day within his heart, and with real tears he wrote, and marked the time with sighs!"

Whoa. So let me get this straight: Tonio, a fictional character, is relating from personal knowledge what motivated the real human composer Leoncavallo to create the work in which he, Tonio, is singing? What - did the two of them meet at Starbucks and chat about the genesis of plot over Frappucinos? Perhaps the reason Canio contradicted Tonio's claim of "realism" is that he went to the wrong Starbucks and missed meeting the composer who made him up...

Okay, this is getting surreal.

And THEN! When the baritone begins that sweepingly lyrical section beginning "E voi piuttosto" he traditionally (though not in Virginia Opera's staging) removes the clown wig giving up his clown persona, speaking to us, the "real" audience out there, in his "real" persona. It's another neat bit of foreshadowing, because the bookend to that gesture will be Canio when he rips off his wig in anger, declaiming "No! Pagliaccio non son!" (No! I am not Pagliaccio!)

Now, follow me here: we know who Canio is when he rips off his wig: he's Canio, Nedda's "real" husband.

But who is Tonio when his wig comes off? Who is he when he reminds us that the artists we'll be seeing onstage are real men of flesh and blood? Is he Tonio? He's obviously not in his clown role of Taddeo.

Is he.... Sherrill Milnes, the Tonio in my DVD? Is he Leonard Warren, the Tonio of my CD? Are we, in other words, to assume that, since "Tonio" never removes his wig, then the wigless baritone who confides hes realness to us in a heart-to heart moment of intimacy is ... the actual performer portraying Tonio?

Is that it?

CAN'T BE! Because, of course, this "reality" is an illusion. NONE OF IT IS REAL, the long-dead corpse of Signor Scavello notwithstanding. Milnes, or Warren, or I myself (I often sing this number in the shower...) are NOT confiding a moment of sincerity in the Prologue; we're just regurgitating (okay, fine, let's say "recreating") words and music that have been sung for over a century and a quarter. "Carne ed ossa"? (Literally "flesh and bone", although ALL English translations substitute the more idiomatic "flesh and blood) Not so much. More like ink on paper, until a Milnes or a Warren creates the ILLUSION of "reality".

It's all..... blurry. This is, for me, the best and coolest aspect of this overly-familiar opera. It messes with your perceptions and, if you weep at Nedda's death (don't bother weeping for Silvio - he's kind of a tool), Leoncavallo pulls of one of opera's greatest "gotcha" moments. He made you forget that the "real" tragedy...................

....................is also fiction.

October 9, 2016

Things to watch & listen for in Pagliacci

I've been teaching classes on Pagliacci for the past several weeks. Here's a potpourri of incidental "stuff" about the opera I've been pointing out to students. Un po' di questo, un po' di quello.
Dorothy: a younger Nedda with birds on the brain

Like what? Like these:

The aria "Stridono lassu" is remarkable for being an about-face from soprano arias from the past; that past generation of Italian operas prior to the verismo sensation of the 1890's. Think of every soprano named Leonora; of Gilda, of Lucia Ashton, and their ilk: we generally get an expression of true love for the tenor in their lives. They will love him forever; they would die for him; they miss him; etc. etc. Nedda's big moment, on the other hand, amounts to Get me the hell out of Dodge, my life is like being in prison, let me be a freakin' bird and I will fly far far FAR away, although I might poop on that stupid clown wagon before I go. (Okay, that's not a "translation" per se; I'm kind of re-wording it a little.) Through familiarity, this solo has become little more than an ingratiating melody with an appealing lilt. In 1892, this kind of expression for a soprano was a bit shocking in its depiction of a dysfunctional marriage in which the woman has fallen OUT of love. No more fairy-tale princesses! Not all women are saintly: this is one of the tenets of verismo.

There's a clear-cut example of text-painting in the aria's final moments; the vocal line climbs higher and higher in a graphic depiction of Nedda's wish to join the birds overhead and ascend "up there". The device is obvious, but I mention it because it brings to bear on:

I'm always struck by the manner in which Harold Arlen, in crafting the score for The Wizard of Oz, recalled "Stridono lassu" in Dorothy's song "Somewhere over the rainbow". Like Nedda, Dorothy feels trapped by her family and longs for freedom. Like Nedda, Dorothy uses being a bird flying away as the metaphor for her unhappiness. And - like Nedda! - the final moments of "Rainbow" employ the same device of text-painting; the song ends with an ascending scale on the words "why, o why can't I". Admit it: it never occurred to you that those final notes were text-painting, did it?

I like those moments in a well-written opera when the orchestral underscoring reveals a character's unspoken thoughts; what they're thinking when they're either silent or saying something different. A good example occurs in the moments when "Taddeo" warns the lovers "Colombina" and "Arlecchino" that Colombina's husband "Pagliaccio" is returning early and their rendezvous will be discovered. As Arlecchino beats a hasty retreat, Colombina calls after him:

A stanotte, e per sempre io sarò tua. (Til tonight, and I'll be yours forever.)

What's cool about that is that, underneath her words, a solo cello is playing the theme of her love duet with Silvio. So, though the libretto has Colombina addressing Arlecchino, that cello quotation signals to alert listeners that Nedda has spotted Silvio out in the crowd and is speaking to him alone. This subtlety is not lost on Canio, who has heard her as he prepares for his entrance.

Notice how Leoncavallo cannot resist some overt mocking of old-fashioned virginal, virtuous sopranos from the canon of Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. "Taddeo" (played by Tonio) makes a great show of sarcastically praising "Colombina's" "virtue".

So che sei pura e casta al par di neve! (I know that you are pure and chaste as the driven snow!)

Later, he repeats the word "pura" with comic relish, as the stage audience howls at the obvious irony.
But, again, it's not just Taddeo mocking Colombina; it's Ruggero Leoncavallo "gently" mocking all those saintly and faithful old-fashioned sopranos, from various Leonoras to Lucia to Micaela. The verismo composers felt no little scorn for this type of character. Basta!

I love to point out to neophyte opera-lovers that opera is THEATER and not a CONCERT. When you consume opera only on the radio or your stereo device, you're missing a lot of the pleasure. Here's a good case in point:

From the moment Canio enters, don't just listen to the music; WATCH the artist portraying Nedda. Leoncavallo has provided the performer with a unique acting opportunity. In the Met DVD from the 70's, the formidable actor Teresa Stratas does an incredibly fine job of using body language and facial expressions to reveal Nedda's evolving understanding of her situation. This occurs in stages:
1) At Canio's entrance, Nedda seems not to grasp her immediate peril. Canio has entered on time and, while he appears to have been drinking, it may not be the first time. She assumes that the performance has shelved, for the time being, her marital problems. To quote Cole Porter it's "another op'nin', another show", and Nedda's expression and body language are completely in character. But then,
2) Her husband's unusual intensity of expression and unexpected ad-libs alert her to the fact that this is not an ordinary show.
3) When Canio sheds his wig and costume, launching into his "Pagliaccio non son" solo, he breaks down, broken-heartedly confessing that while he realized she could never love him, he had at least hoped for compassion from her. During this passage, watch Nedda's face. What Stratas did so well was to let her regret register on her face; she understands for the first time how her actions have hurt Canio. The consequences of adultery seem real, and she feels badly. HOWEVER,
4) It changes when Canio pivots from grief to rage, shouting that she doesn't deserve love, she has no shame and she now "disgusts" him. (It's Canio's Donald Trump moment...) When he goes on the attack, Nedda pivots from empathy and regret to pride and anger. His scorn for her turns her defiant, and this defiance is what dooms her. If Canio had not de-valued and abased her, but had rather stuck to expressing heartbreak, who know? Perhaps she would have embraced him and begged forgiveness. But he triggered her rage with his own, and this emotional stand-off could only end in violence.

Routine to concern to empathy/regret to angry defiance: this is a remarkable evolution that takes place in something like six or seven minutes. The soprano taking on Nedda better bring her acting chops!

September 30, 2016

The mystery of "Pagliacci"

Do you ever listen to soft-rock oldies? You may have encountered a ballad called "Brandy" from the band Looking Glass. It recounts the story of a barmaid and the sailor who (repeatedly) told her "you're a fine girl; what a good wife you would be". Released in August, 1972, the song caught on and spent a week at #1 on the Billboard charts on its way to selling a million records. (No, children, not downloads or digital files -- nice, round, waxy vinyl discs played by needles on turntables.)

They never had another number one song again. They were the proverbial "one-hit wonder".

And now to consider the second half of Virginia Opera's season-opening double bill, Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. This story of a troupe of clowns proved an immediate success upon its appearance in 1892. Discounting a first attempt at opera composition when the composer was not yet twenty years old (an opus called Chatterton that he attempted to re-write and launch a few years later), Pagliacci was his first completed opera. An impressive feat! Not everyone can write operas, you know; it's pretty difficult -- calls for a variety of skill-sets. Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Bizet -- all had apprentice periods during which they wrote operas that have rarely been performed. Eventually, of course, they "found their voice" as writers love to say, and masterpieces followed.

The strange aspect of Leoncavallo is that Pagliacci, a work showing a skilled hand in characterization, orchestration, melodic invention and narrative skill, was followed by a dismal string of unrelieved failures. These include:
I Medici
La bohème (don't get excited; it's not "the" Bohème, it's "a" Bohème)
Der Roland von Berlin

Wow - wouldn't the talent and technique so abundantly on display in Pagliacci have suggested that the law of averages would yield at least one success for the balance of his career?

What? Happened?

I think the key lies in analyzing the formula that made Pagliacci so sure-fire. It was a formula that could not with honor be repeated. It appears to me that Leoncavallo modeled his 1892 hit show on plot points, characters, vocal styles, musical characterizations and structures from three operas he admired and wished, as a young composer learning the ropes of operatic creation, to emulate. These are:
1) Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (1890); the traditional double-bill partner of Pagliacci;
2) Verdi's Otello (1887); and
3) Bizet's Carmen (1875)

Of course, the sensation of Cavalleria directly inspired Leoncavallo to try his hand at the genre, sensing that Mascagni's star was well worth hitching his wagon to. But it wasn't just the peasant class and their bad behavior he emulated. Mascagni's substitution of a short orchestral intermezzo in place of an intermission led Leoncavallo not only to borrow the idea, but to make his a virtual clone of Mascagni's.

The Cavalleria intermezzo begins with a chorus of pianissimo high strings playing a melody of pathos. In short order it builds to a climax of throbbingly passionate rhetoric. By no coincidence at all, these characteristics define the intermezzo in Pagliacci  as well.

Now, don't get upset; I'm not dissing Leoncavallo! Less experienced composers generally lean heavily on the work of masters they admire in their early works. Mozart wrote in the style of J.C. Bach at first, and there are many similar cases. And Leoncavallo's intermezzo is gorgeous. But the structure and effects are much the same as those in Mascagni's model..

The most important model, however came with Otello. Leoncavallo claimed that the genesis of Pagliacci's plot was a sordid murder trial from the 1860's, one in which a family friend was the victim and the future composer's father presided as magistrate. The famous Prologue that opens the piece appears to reference this, saying: "Deep-embedded memories stirred one day within (the author's) heart, and with real tears he wrote". (This is likely the only case in which a fictional character seems to know the back story of the artist who created him!)

As quaint and Romantic as this notion is, it collapses when one realizes to what extent Pagliacci is a verismo re-writing of Otello. And I do mean Verdi's opera, not Shakespeare's play, as aspects of the music are similar in addition to this side-by-side summary of plot and characters:

OTELLO, leader of his people, is married to DESDEMONA. He loves her, but his love is tainted by pathological jealousy. IAGO resents Otello and plans to ruin him by suggesting that his wife has been unfaithful. OTELLO is devasted and heartbroken, leading to the murder of DESDEMONA in the opera's final moments. OTELLO discovers that IAGO was lying: DESDEMONA was innocent. Realizing he has lost his honor, OTELLO takes his own life.

CANIO, leader of an acting troupe, is married to NEDDA. He loves her, but his love is tainted by pathological jealousy. TONIO resents Nedda and plans to ruin her by suggesting to Canio that she has been unfaithful. CANIO is devastated and heartbroken, leading to the murder of NEDDA in the opera's final moments. Since the opera is in the verismo school, TONIO was not lying: NEDDA was guilty, meaning that Canio has regained his honor. He kills her lover Silvio.

Heard in this context, Canio's iconic aria "Vesti la giubba", especially in the climactic "Ridi pagliaccio" passage, can be understood as a descendent of Otello's "Dio! mi potevi sciagliar". Both are anguished monologues in which the cuckolded husbands grieve for the loss of their marital happiness with stentorian outbursts.

Similarly, the moment when Tonio counsels Canio, who has witnessed Nedda's rendezvous, to dissemble and behave with cunning and subtlety in identifying her lover,reminds us of Iago's feigned friendship to Otello. His low-key, conversational tone puts the listener in mind of "Era la notte" the solo in which Iago floats his false accusation. Neither baritone role is conceived as an over-the-top villain, blustering, shouting and cackling. Each adopts a casual tone; each knows that their victim needs only the merest nudge to cause an eruption of suspicion and rage. The vocal styles are appropriately restrained.

And as for Carmen, here Leoncavallo duplicates with great precision the final confrontation between Carmen and Don Jose. Holding a knife to her throat, Jose threatens to kill her on the spot unless she tell him she loves him. With a defiance bespeaking her stubborn insistence on living life on her own terms, Carmen refuses with a compelling declaration ending on a sustained high note. Death follows within moments.

Note the end of the clown show in Pagliacci. Canio, no longer in character, brandishes a knife as he demands to know the name of Nedda's lover. Her response of fiery denial is an obvious homage to Carmen, and she too is stabbed immediately. The use of a knife, rather than strangling as in Otello, is another nod to Carmen.

Now, don't get me wrong! Again, ALL young composers engage in such borrowings early in their careers. I'm not disparaging Leoncavallo or his opera. In fact, the skill with which he stitched all these elements into a visceral and thrilling work of theater is stunning. He did good!

So what went wrong with his post-Pagliacci failures? Simply this, I suppose: eventually, composers must turn away from models and find their own distinctive voice. No more borrowings. In Leoncavallo's case, turning away from red-blooded verismo (a term he hated) left his "authentic" voice exposed, with the depressing reality that it simply wasn't sufficiently interesting to carry the day.

But Pagliacci is a legacy any artist would be proud to claim. It will never die.

September 25, 2016

The Music of Weill's "7 Deadly Sins", part 2

My last post introduced you to the musical riches of the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht masterpiece The Seven Deadly Sins up through the "Anger" movement. Now let's continue Anna's tour of American cities en route to earning enough money to allow the family back home in Louisiana to build a house.
Kurt Weill (1900-1950)

Anna I and her "sister" Anna II have made their way from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. (Remember that the two Annas are really contrasting aspects of one woman; Anna I, who sings, is practical and a bit cold-hearted in pursuit of material gain, whereas Anna II, who dances, has higher aspirations and an artistic nature.)

Anna is silent in this number, with the male quartet depicting her family giving voice to concerns about her weight. Her contract as a showgirl stipulates a maximum weight, it seems; exceed it by one pound, and she'll be out of a job. This is cause for familial concern, as we're led to believe young Anna can really chow down. Still, as a solo tenor sings delicately, they have faith in her:

This amiable, folk-like tune leads to some ironically exquisite unaccompanied four-part harmony as the family rhaposidizes about the Southern cuisine Anna will have to forego until her return in a few years' time. The close harmony and sense of whimsy are a winking homage to a male singing ensemble known as the "Comedian Harmonists". This group was at the peak of their considerable popularity at the time Weill wrote Deadly Sins, with numerous recitals throughout Europe and a volume of recordings played on radio. Click here for a sample of their sound. The similarity with this "Gluttony" passage is deliberate.

But the important thing here is Brecht's point about this particular sin: the imperative of earning money has turned "eating when you are hungry" into a "sin". Starving oneself is now "virtuous".

Enjoy the whimsy of "Gluttony"; it's the last trace to be found in the work. As Anna makes more and more compromises on her ideals and aspirations in order to earn a buck, the cost to her psyche becomes more and more unbearable. And this movement is a turning point.

Spending a year in Boston, Anna appears to have a reprieve from dancing and stripping. Like Violetta Valery in Verdi's La Traviata, she has a wealthy man lavishing riches on her. However, Anna I finds to her dismay that Anna II is in love with a man who must have no money; she is supporting him, because she loves him.

Fully aware that ending the affair could cost her "sister" her only chance at true love, Anna I rationalizes the desire for romantic happiness as a "sin", counseling Anna II to remember which side of her bread is buttered. This passage is set to music so beautiful, so ravishing and of such utter heartbreak and pathos that Deadly Sins, up til now expressing irony and whimsy, now turns tragic:

The first two phrases of the vocal line, you'll recall, manifest the duality motive observed in the Prologue as explained in the previous post: two nearly-identical musical gestures, the second one ending a half-step lower than the first. One woman with a dual nature symbolized by one phrase with contrasting final notes - this is found on every page of the score.

Weill wrote another song about lust: the "Barbara Song" from The Threepenny Opera some five years earlier. Interestingly, Anna's "Lust" song quotes a phrase from the earlier composition. This is a connection he could credibly have expected listeners to recognize, given the notoriety of Threepenny which by now had been performed tens of thousands of times and translated into several languages.

The orchestral postlude to "Lust" is perhaps the most intensely operatic moment in the piece. A tortured harmonic progression rises and falls in aching, arcing cresendos, clearly depicting Anna's despair and heartbreak, giving the lie to her hard-hearted words. This is a climactic tipping point; the cumulative effect of too many moral compromises has proven too high a price for material gain. Something within Anna's soul has died.

Perhaps too traumatized to express herself, Anna, now in Baltimore, is silent in this movement. Her family notes that her name constantly appears in news reports, and the reports are troubling. Brecht mentions, with tantalizing lack of detail, that "men are shooting themselves over her". Whatever her game, Anna, now deadened to conventional morality, is running wild, amassing money as fast as possible. The orchestra describes her new affect with great precision in furious passages in which no trace of Anna II's soulfulness can be detected:

You know, I'm not convinced that Brecht ever consulted a map of the United States in sketching out his libretto, so convoluted is Anna's trail from city to city. Having escaped Baltimore perhaps one step ahead of the police, she spans the continent all the way to San Francisco before returning in the Epilogue to Louisiana.

In any case, Anna II, says her vocal "sister", is tired and envious. And who are those who inspire the sin of envy? Anna I ticks them off: people who eat when they're hungry, protest injustice, are loyal to their true loves, and so on and so on -- you know: the "bad people"; the "sinners"; those fools who gave in to the temptations Anna has resisted for the sake of pursuing material gain.

So Anna gives the moral remnants that remain within her dual nature a pep talk. To music that sounds like a stirring triumphal march but is actually a brutal parody of one, music that never fails to give me goose flesh and make my hair stand on end,

Anna congratulates herself for having stuck to her guns. Those "sinners"? They'll be sorry. This pep talk takes the form of four verses, The prancing dotted rhythm is a fiercely emotional distortion of the dotted rhythms that marked the trudging, melancholy march of the Prologue:
Immediately after her climactic final phrase, the family bursts forth with dramatic shouts of praise to the Lord for having led her to her Reward.

It's very clear that Anna is whistling past the graveyard where her better nature -- her soul -- is now interred. As a parody of a triumphant conclusion, this movement puts one in mind of the finale to the Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich, who simultaneously delivered and mocked the conservative style demanded of him by the Kremlin during the same decade.

Bertolt Brecht, who had come to loathe both Weill and his music during the tempestuous discord caused by Mahagonny rehearsals, was dismissive of Deadly Sins. "Pretty but unimportant", he remarked to his wife. I think I know precisely the aspect of Weill's score that would have produced his scorn. To Brecht, political messages were everything, and music a subservient and secondary tool for projecting those messages. Deadly Sins is an indictment of the dangers of pursuing the Western dream of home ownership when the dream overshadows all other considerations. He likely meant us to feel superior to Anna I in the way she bullies her metaphysical sister into abandoning her humanity in favor of The Almighty Dollar.

I suspect that, had he set his own text to music, the Epilogue would have sounded nothing like Weill's conception. Weill who, far from despising Western materialism, became an American citizen, sets Anna's return to Louisiana in music that manipulates the listener into identifying with her traumatized condition. A fortune has been won, but Anna's utterances are a dirge of withered affect.

Anna and, perhaps, her sanctimonious family may learn the difficult lesson learned by many who attain their "dream house": that "home" is more than a building, and a house can't make you happy. Mansions can be prisons.

September 18, 2016

The music of Weill's "The Seven Deadly Sins"

For a short piece of just 40 minutes’ duration, Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins” offers a richly varied feast of extremely compelling, truly memorable theater music. Weill’s art succeeds at humanizing Anna, the drama’s protagonist with a dual nature made manifest in two onstage performers: a singer for the character’s coldly practical side, and a dancer for her artistic, sensitive nature.

Bertolt Brecht’s text, I suspect, was meant to be a cynical satire on Western materialism. In each of the seven cities Anna visits, her cockeyed view of resisting “sin” and “temptation” results in the compromising of her better instincts for the sake of earning money for her family back home in Louisiana. Brecht might have preferred a more sardonic musical setting, one that would leave the audience looking down on Anna for her obsession with The Almighty Dollar.
Weill, however, sets the text to music that takes a different point of view. The listener empathizes with Anna; we feel all too keenly that heartbreak and despair are the consequences of the choices she makes. Her story remains a cautionary tale about “selling out” in the pursuit of the American Dream of home ownership.

(By the way, there is heavy irony in the creation of a drama about a homeless individual traveling to strange new cities with the imperative of earning money, as Weill and Brecht found themselves in that exact situation as they wrote the piece. Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 forced both artists into a hasty exodus from Germany, leaving their fortunes behind.)

Here is my number-by-number guide to the music; my summary of what to listen for in each movement:

The first thing you hear is really important; the source of the rest of the score. So be ready! Two clarinets emit a pair of mournful descending phrases:

The second phrase, importantly, ends a half-step lower than the first. So: two nearly identical musical gestures, one ending higher, the other lower. This is Anna! Or rather, it’s the musical representation of the duality of Anna I and Anna II. Throughout the rest of the work, this motif will be a constant presence; at times in the orchestra, at times in the vocal line, short musical gestures a half-step apart will dominate. The accompaniment figure in the example above features an interesting orchestral color: the banjo. It’s stark pluckings help establish a sense of place: the American South.

Anna explains that she and her “sister” (there are two performers on stage, but only one Anna) are leaving their home in Louisiana on a journey of seven years, with the goal of earning enough money for her parents and two brothers to build a house. Now, most young people heading out to big cities to perform for money would be excited, dreaming of fame and success. Weill, however, makes it clear that Anna is a reluctant traveler. The Prologue has a melancholy, blues-y affect; rhythmically, it has the dirge-like pace of a funeral march. Anna, like Weill leaving his beloved Berlin, faces her adventure with reluctance and dread, hoping to return sooner rather than later.

Remember that Deadly Sins began with a sad march. There will be a transformation of marching music later on.

Anna I does not vocalize in the first movement; it is the male quartet that sings, worrying about the young girl’s ability to buckle down and be productive. The orchestral introduction is a turbulent, whirling tarantella, suggesting the family’s hope that Anna will be busy as a bee:

Weill sets the family’s declarations in the form of call-and-response, perhaps another nod towards their Southern roots, suggesting work-songs in Louisiana cotton fields. The mother (at least it was George Balanchine, the original choreographer, who decided that the bass portray the mother, a touch of absurd whimsy) frets about Anna’s history as a lazybones while the men-folk respond with a sanctimonious religious bromide:

This section, as with the entire work, presents both challenges and opportunities for the stage director/choreographer. The text does not function like a traditional libretto; no specific action is spelled out for the Anna’s; there are no stage directions. This affords an unusual degree of liberation, with possible scenarios limited only by the director’s imagination.

In Memphis, Anna is dancing in a cabaret club. Brecht turns the notion of the sin of pride on its head; Anna II wishes to dance in an artistic manner, but Anna I points out that the customers here care nothing about Art and wish to see her naked body; Anna is working at a cheap striptease joint. Her warnings to leave pride to those who can afford it are sung to a beguiling and elegant waltz-tune, one of many Weill-ish inspirations in the piece:

The theme presents the motif of duality as it toggles back and forth between half-step intervals in both melody and the oop-pa-pa accompaniment. The significance of this passage is the obvious disconnect between Anna’s words and the character of the musical setting. The music is Anna II’s aspirations of a classic and “classy” performance, while Anna I speaks of vulgar debauchery. 

Anna is in Los Angeles, working (one gathers) on a film set as an extra. The ironic take on the sin of anger is that Anna II is outraged at some unnamed injustice she’s observed (in the original production it was mistreatment of animals, though again, the libretto is vague), but Anna I warns her to swallow her anger lest they be fired. Thus injustice is allowed simply because it comes in second to making money.

An orchestral passage neatly alternates depictions of Anna’s anger with a suggestion of vintage Hollywood-style dance music in which the motif of duality is observed in the accompaniment:

When Anna I offers her advice on the perils of anger, it is to a rhythmically square tune that sounds very “American” in its forthright optimism, however faux that attitude may really be. By now, you may be looking for the duality motif – you’ll find it in the final notes of Anna’s first two phrases.

If it strikes you that this tune appears to foreshadow Billy Bigelow’s “My boy Bill” from Carousel, a show that wouldn’t appear for another dozen years, then we are in agreement. It makes Weill’s evolution into a Broadway composer seem a natural progression.

Well, this post is a bit wordy, isn’t it? That’s probably enough for today. In a few days I’ll finish my survey of the music of a show I have come to love.

September 7, 2016

Seven Deadly Sins: art reflects life with homelessness in Louisiana

Summer is OVER, opera pals! College football players are already nursing bruises, opera companies are rehearsing like mad, and Your Humble Blogger is tan, rested, and ready to shed light on Virginia Opera's 2016-2017 season.
Kurt Weill (1900-1950)

On September 30, the curtain at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk will rise on a double-bill: Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, and Leoncavallo's reliable Pagliacci. Suck it, Mascagni! Breaking tradition here; a good thing! My first several posts will deal with the Weill piece.

Can I just say that I have become obsessed with Deadly Sins? For most of my life, my acquaintance with Weill was limited to "Mack the Knife", "Lonely House" from Street Scene, and "September Song" from Knickerbocker Holiday. But I'm making up for lost time, having A) studied Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, among other works; and B) have fallen in total, blissful love with Deadly Sins. I've purchased no fewer than eight recordings on CD or DVD of the piece which I will briefly critique below.

But first: how ironic and improbable is it that, just as tens of thousands of people in Louisiana have lost their homes in the wake of the recent devastating floods, Virginia Opera is staging a work about a family striving to build a home in a fictional Louisiana? Seriously, what were the odds?

Think about it: in Weill's masterwork, a woman called Anna leaves her home "where the Mississippi waters flow beneath the moon" on a mission: to earn enough money as a dancer to "build a little house" for her family. The libretto, by the mercurial German theatrical genius Bertolt Brecht, does not explain the family's circumstances or why a home is needed. It's tempting, however, to imagine a natural disaster in the light of current headlines.

It's hard to discuss this "sung ballet" (as the publisher called it) without stricken Louisiana residents in mind, so how about this: whether or not you can attend our production, here's a way you can help: click on this link to go to America's Charities Disaster Recovery Fund, where you can safely and securely make a donation of any size to help relieve the suffering of the real homeless people.

How bad is it down there? According to the website link above,
"At least 11 deaths have been attributed to the flooding, more than 30,000 people have been evacuated, and 12,000 are currently in shelters. More than 40,000 homes and businesses are without power and Louisiana State University has shuttered its doors as a result of flooding on the campus."

So please consider doing what you can to help all the real Anna's out there.

But back to Weill and his incredible forty-minute gem. I'll never forget the first time I heard this music; I'd just gotten the first of my several recordings. I popped the disc into my laptop, opened the libretto and almost instantly was GOBSMACKED by some of the most arresting, compelling, unforgettable theater music I've ever heard. My litmus test for a new piece I've never heard before is simply this: having heard it once, do I ever want or need to hear it again? My most recent post about Godard's opera Dante was on this topic. Dante wasn't horrible, but it lacked whatever it is that makes great music great. Having heard it once, I realized "That's it. Don't need to hear it any more". The opposite was true with Deadly Sins. When it was over, I had an immediate hunger to hear it AGAIN. And AGAIN. And AGAIN.

The piece is hard to pigeon-hole; it defies categorization, which may account for it's slow road to acceptance by the public. I mean, Aida is an opera, Nutcracker is a ballet and Das Lied von der Erde is a song cycle. Simple. But not Seven Deadly Sins! It's part opera, part ballet, part cantata, part cabaret, part symphonic song cycle..... whew! Weill produced a work of art that is truly unique. Nothing else bears any resemblance to it.

I'll discuss the music in more detail in future posts, but for those who don't know the work and would like to hear it, I'll quickly describe the recordings I've acquired, in ascending order from LEAST recommended to MOST recommended, identifying the vocal soloist and conductor. So at the bottom of the pack:

1) Marianne Faithfull, (Dennis Russell Davies) Weill wrote the work for an operatic soprano with full orchestra (and a male quartet to depict her family back home in Louisiana.) When Lotte Lenya (the composer's wife and creator of the role of Anna) wished to record the piece following Weill's death, her voice was no longer capable of negotiating the original high key. So a transposition was made, pitched a fourth lower, to accommodate her tabacco-ravaged range. Marianne Faithful, whose voice makes Bette Davis sound like Minnie Mouse, can't even manage the low key, so her solution is to sing in the original key, but one octave lower. She growls seductively, with an articulation of the authorized English translation that makes her sound like she's on her fourth scotch-rocks. This is NOT what Weill had in mind. Deadly Sins has elements of cabaret, but cabaret it is not. Not recommended.

2) Lotte Lenya, (Wilhelm Brueckner-Rueggenberg) Lenya achieved international stardom by performing her husband's music. She was the Clara Schumann to Weill's Robert; his muse and his trusted interpreter. SO: this one should be the "real deal", right? Well, no. Again, an estimated 500,000 cigarettes had robbed her of youthful vocal ease, if not her distinctive personality, with a disappointing result. Her effortful vocalism actually deprives her of the chance to impart pathos and dramatic subtlety to her performance. Recommended ONLY as a document of historical interest.

3) Karen Herr Erickson (Samuel Cristler) Here is a performance in keeping with Weill's intentions: sung in the original key by an operatic performer. And it's in English, to boot. The downsides are mushy acoustics (the performance was a live broadcast heard on NPR and not available on CD) and a curious dramatic blandness. The singing was not particularly full of character or individuality. But it's the only choice for an English-language recording in the high key.

4) Ute Lemper (John Mauceri) If you want to hear a low-key performance, in the original language, sung by a cabaret singer with real credentials in that field, this is a fair choice. Ms. Lemper sings with committment and belts effortlessly in climactic moments. Makes one wonder what Barbra Streisand in her prime might have made of this material. Still not my recommended version.

5) Teresa Stratas (Kent Nagano) Stratas is a justly famed intrepreter of Weill, and she sings her face off in this staged DVD performance. The music sounds fine, even though the soprano was no longer young when this was made, and let's just say that the steel belt occasionally appears in the radial tire of her splendid voice. There's a bit of strain. But a larger reservation is Peter Sellars' predictably idiosyncratic direction. Lots of deliberately confused, jerky, chaotic camera-work; lots of abstraction in the story-telling. Look: it's one thing to take a well-known standard opera like Cosi fan tutte and give it the Regietheater treatment by setting it in a diner. But it's another to distort this piece in a video that is likely to be most viewer's first introduction to it. And no sub-titles!! Boo.

6) Angelika Kirschlager (H.G. Gruber) This is another DVD, done in concert style. That in itself is not a problem; I myself saw a live performance last spring by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. with the cabaret singer Storm Large. Weill's piece actually lends itself well to semi-staging, and Ms. Large captivated her audience. But this video performance is a mixed bag. I don't quarrel with Kirschalger's singing; it's fine, on a par with Stratas. HOWEVER: it's not "semi-staged"; she simply stands in place as if singing a Bach cantata. Acting is limited to facial expressions. Still, it has its points.

7) Elise Ross (Simon Rattle) Here is a performance sung as Weill intended, in German with a lyric soprano. The biggest plus to this disc: Rattle's stylish conducting. Ms. Ross is occasionally a bit monochromatic in terms of vocal color, but she does a solid job. I prefer her rendition of the "Pride" section to all the others.

But top honors (and it's not even close) go to:

8) Ann Sofie von Otter (John Eliot Gardiner) This is a sublime recording. Von Otter imbues every syllable with heart-breaking meaning; she makes the character of Anna truly come alive. In the climactic "Envy" section, she sings with such vivid ferocity that it gives me goose-flesh every time. In the "Lust" section, she sings with such emotional directness and intimacy that it's almost unbearable. This disc is definitive and indispensable for fans of Kurt Weill. Highly recommended.

And again - if you're going to pony up for any of these recordings, at least consider donating the same amount to the charitable website I mentioned above. All the real-life Annas will really appreciate it.