March 16, 2020

Aida postponed for illness? Yep - in 1873!

Those of you Faithful readers who follow Virginia Opera will doubtless be aware that our production of Verdi's Aida has been postponed due to the same circumstances besetting virtually every arts organization during our national crisis - Covid-19.
Soprano Teresa Stolz. (Wash your hands, Teresa!)

No, I'm not here to announce further developments; I have no information on the prospects for rescheduling. Like our patrons, artists and staff, I'm in limbo, as you probably are with your normal routine.

But there's an ironic coincidence at play here.

One of the casualties of the Aida situation is a live radio broadcast I was booked to deliver on March 25. Virginia Public Media (VPM), the NPR affiliate in Richmond Virginia, brings me on the air four times each season to talk about whatever opera is about to open. I emailed Shawn Evans, the station announcer who is my host, to cancel the broadcast. He replied with a comment that stirred my memory, asking if it was true that a similar situation resulted in Verdi composing his String Quartet.

Here's what happened.

Verdi traveled to Naples to oversee that city's premiere of Aida in March, 1873. The title role was to be performed by Teresa Stolz, who had starred in all previous Italian performances. Stolz fell ill, however, and the production was postponed - not for a day or a week, but for several weeks. Verdi was holed up in his hotel room, suddenly with time on his hands. With no assurance of how long Stolz might be indisposed, there was little point in returning to his home.

Netflix not yet having been invented, Verdi passed his enforced Naples vacation by working on his string quartet. It was written with no particular plans for public performance, an attitude that more or less applied to his attitude when creating his final masterpiece Falstaff. Naturally, a new opera by Verdi (no matter how atypical in style) would immediately be snatched up by opera impressarios, but it remains true that the composer's chief motivation was his own enjoyment.

The quartet's first performance was in that hotel in Naples, with a small audience of Verdi's friends and colleagues. They must have been intrigued by the novelty of the great man's project. Consider: if you learned that Stephen Sondheim had just written a piano sonata, wouldn't you be intrigued to hear it?

The quartet's intrinsic craftsmanship and merit launched it into a permanent niche in chamber music literature.

ONE FINAL IRONY. Several months ago, when Virginia Opera had committed to staging Aida, the Center for the Arts of George Mason University in Fairfax informed the company that they would be unable to present the opera at that venue. (GMU is one of three venues in which we perform, in addition to Norfolk and Richmond.) The reason involved insufficient technical specs of that theater which came to light during a previous run of Aida in 2011.

This, of course, was a blow to a regional opera company highly dependent on ticket sales for the health of the bottom line. Plans were hastily made to organize excursions to Richmond for interested parties in Northern Virginia.

Now comes the irony.

Last week GMU announced that, due to the pandemic, all performances at the Center for the Arts were cancelled through May 1. So Aida would not have been performed there in any event.

Opera: a tough way to make a living even in good times, and full of risks during tough times. But Virginia Opera will persevere!

As, we hope, you will as well.

March 8, 2020

Verdi's Aida: composer as politcal commentator

Many opera lovers who adore the operas of Verdi may be unaware of the extent of his political activism. For example, he was an ardent supporter of the Italian risorgimento, the movement to consolidate the various kingdoms and territories of the Italian peninsula into a single unified nation. Several of his operas contain "dog whistles": scenes he knew would be understood by like-minded Italians as calls to patriotic action, though not so blatant as to incur opposition from censors. The best-known of these is "Va pensiero", sung by a chorus of Hebrew slaves in the opera Nabucco (1842).
Pope Pius IX

In later years, Verdi dabbled in politics to the extent of accepting elected offices, usually for short periods, mostly for the purpose of lending his celebrity to a cause he believed in. He even gained a seat as senator in 1874, though he did not actively participate.

Other aspects of Aida may be interpreted as the composer's personal commentary on current events during the period of its creation and premiere, events which he applauded in one case and which appalled him in another. In both cases events involving Pope Pius IX and the Franco-Prussian War were at the root of Verdi's concerns.

Both of these scenes represent a continuation of the super-patriotic content audiences had cheered in previous dramas. The Egyptian king's "Su! del Nilo" is a vintage call to action, whereas the choral cries of "Gloria" in the Triujmphal Scene in Act 2 resemble the aforementioned "dog whistles". But why would they appear in an opera that premiered a full ten years after the Risorgimento ended in 1861? Here's some context.

The Vatican Council of 1870 produced a controversial document from the Pope: a declaration of papal infallibility. The unified nation of Italy did not include a vast territory called the Papal States for which Pope Pius IX was a de facto ruler as well as spiritual leader. Napolean III had stationed troops around Rome to protecty the Pope. When he withdrew his army to wage war with Prussia, the Italian army siezed the opportunity to invade Rome, establishing the city as the Italian capital and bringing about the dissolution of the Papal States.

The patriotic moments in Aida can be viewed through the filter of these contemporaneous developments. Verdi appears to have been saying "Celebrate our achievements, fellow Italians; look how far we have come!"

This scene mirrors a crucial scene in Verdi's previous opera Don Carlo (1867). In the Auto-da-fe scene of that work, a group of heretics has been condemned to burn at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition, despite pleading to King Philip II for mercy. When the populace, including the king's own wife Elizabeth join in the call for clemency, six monks respond that the infidels must be punished.

In the latter opera, the condemned men perish as smoke billows out from the burning stake. In Aida, 
Amonasro, acting as spokesman for the captured Ethiopians, begs the Pharaoh to release all prisoners, claiming that his nation no longer is a threat to Egypt. He is joined by Aida, the assembled people of Memphis and even the Egyptian military commander Radames. The king, having already promised Radames any reward he might name, reluctantly grants freedom to all prisoners save Aida and her father.

Both scenes reflect Verdi's antipathy towards the church in general and priests in particular. The roots of his attitude stem from tragic events of his youth, but a situation again involving Pope Pius IX, the declaration of papal infallibility, and the Franco-Prussian conflict reinforced his disdain to the extent of dramatising it in Amonasro's scene.

The end of the Franco-Prussian war was marked by the wholesale slaughter of tens of thousands of protesters in the city of Paris. Ordered by Adolphe Thiers, president of the Third French Republic, estimates of the number of persons shot and killed range from 17,000 to 40,000.

Verdi's reaction to this massacre was as practical as it was deeply felt: he feared something similar could take place in his homeland. Writing to a friend, Verdi gave a grim warning, as well as a grim assessment of the Catholic Church's reaction to the catastrophe:

"Principles pushed to extremes lead only to disorder", he wrote, "France pushed both good and evil to extremes and this is the result. The same thing will happen to us if we don't learn to control ourselves. You have an example under your eyes. Your priests' refusal to compromise of the dogma of infallibility is causing a schism... Your priests certainly are priests, but they aren't Christians. The Papal Court couldn't find a word of pity for those poor martyrs of Paris."

That same year saw the premiere of Aida, his latest work to criticise religious leaders for basic lack of mercy toward fellow human beings.

Today we may marvel at the timeliness of Aida in depicting tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia, tensions that have once again flared up to the brink of war as I documented in a recent post.

But even in 1871 the opera stood as Verdi's cogent and biting commentary on the controversies of his day; his "current events".

One of the functions of Art is to hold up a mirror to society. Few works of art have succeeded as brilliantly as Aida.

February 14, 2020

Aida: finding the meaning in melodic shapes

The melodies in Verdi's Aida were not constructed by their composer merely for abstract musical pleasure alone; they provide insights into the psychology of the characters who sing them. Their implications are cross-cultural and cross-generational. They're worth examining, so here's a survey of the most intriguing examples.
Verdi: composer of melodies with meaning

Radames' sole aria comes just a minute and a half into Act I, scene i. Unlike "Questo o quella", the Duke's opening solo in Rigoletto, "Celeste Aida" is no warm-up piece for the tenor's voice. It's a challenge even for dramatic tenors, thanks to two features:
  • Verdi's marking of pianississumo (very very soft) on the final note, a high B flat. Perhaps one tenor in 500 will attempt this live in performance. (The tenor Helge Rosvaenge, singing in German translation croons the ending as written in this 1938 recording.
  • The opening theme consists of several phrases with an ascending motion that lies awkwardly for all but experienced, highly trained voices with facility in the passaggio: 

But this theme, so simple, so songlike, is much more than "ear candy". The text of the aria refers to the skies; he calls her "heavenly Aida" and promises her "a throne near the sun" (with the clear subtext of the Sun god Amun-Ra). Thus, most of the vocal lines sweep upward to reflect his preoccupation with celestial images, as if "reaching for the skies" (as lawmen used to say in TV Westerns).

On another aspect of the aria, we observe that Radames is not a deep thinker. The chief reason he wants to lead Egypt into battle with Ethiopia is 
"To return to you, my sweet Aida,
decked with the victor’s laurels,
to say. “I fought, I won for you!”

The irony of impressing her with his military prowess by slaughtering her countrymen does not appear to have registered with him. His bravery exceeds his sensitivity at this point.

And here's some more irony: for a split-second, being carried away by the excitement of Radames' investiture as military commander, Aida actually IS impressed with his military glory. The difference, of course, is that this irony immediately hits her like a gut-punch. "Ritorna vincitor" is a soliloquy during which she comes to realize that hers is a no-win situation; no outcome of the coming battle will bring her happiness. The music is a roller-coaster of conflicted emotions, totally "through-composed" with each section set to new musical ideas.

It's the final section that blows my mind.

This is when Aida, feeling doomed and out of control, lifts a prayer to the gods. "Numi, pietà del mio soffrir!" (Gods, take pity on my suffering). I would draw your attention to the vocal line Verdi gives these words:
Try something: sing the first four bars out loud. If it sounds familiar, there's a good reason. For comparison's sake, now sing these children's songs and chants out loud:
  • Nanny-nanny-boo-boo
  • It's raining, it's pouring, the old man is snoring
  • Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posy
  • AIR-BALL, AIR-BALL (heard at basketball games when the shooter misses the net)
Hear the common thread? They're all sung to the same basic tune, a tune that includes the first four notes of "Numi, pietà". It turns out that this collection of pitches is something hard-wired in human DNA. It's something that children in every culture just naturally sing when playing or when taunting others. (Or, in the case of "air-ball" when reacting like taunting children.)

No less a musical mind than Leonard Bernstein explored this phenomenon in the first of his famous series of lectures at Harvard University: "The Unanswered Question". In the first lecture, "Musical Phonology", Bernstein considered children's taunting chants:

"Research seems to indicate that this exact constellation (of pitches) is the same all over the world, wherever children tease each other, on every continent and in every culture. In short, we may have here a clear case of a musical-linguistic universal."

In other words, what we have here is something primal: call it a cross-cultural, cross-generational universal refrain of childhood. When playground taunts follow this "tune", no child is thinking "I shall now employ the Universal Refrain of Childhood -- that'll show him!" No, it's apparently just hard-wired in his DNA.

In the case of Aida, the meaning of the tune seems clear: Aida's dilemma has reduced her to a child-like state of helplessness and neediness. While the conception of a god as "God the Father" - that is, a loving personal God who cares about our happiness - was likely foreign to Egyptian religion, for Verdi's purposes that conception is at the heart of Aida's prayer. Appealing to her gods as a child begs a parent, Aida reverts to the Universal Refrain of Childhood.

Now, if Giuseppe Verdi could read this blog, there are exactly three ways he could logically respond:
  1. "Bravo, Glenn! You have correctly read my intent; I applaud your refined musical understanding." or:
  2. "Glenn, Glenn, Glenn... you're thinking too hard, son. It's just a tune and you're not that clever." or:
  3. "WHOAHHH - I had no idea, but you may be on to something. This totally makes sense! Must have been my subconscious mind that came up with that, because I didn't realize it til now."
But regardless of Verdi's intent... the musical connection is there.

In this, the finest tenor-mezzo duet ever created, Verdi displays his unsurpassed brilliance at setting texts with such vividness that the emotions of the characters leap off the page and force us to feel what they're feeling.

And this is accomplished by means of melodic contour.

The duet falls into three sections (You can hear it in this video with Grace Bumbry and Franco Corelli) The first section, beginning at 2:58 of the video, features a melody apt for the dramatic situation. Amneris, aware that Radames does not love her but still wanting to save his life, advises him to defend himself at his imminent trial on charges of treason. The vocal line, accompanied by unhurried clarinet triplets, is reserved and somewhat formal, reflecting their strained relationship.

When Radames declines to defend himself, preferring death, Amneris (always too impulsive) cannot restrain her passionate love, guilt for having had him arrested, and desperation. This new theme begins at 5:22; it erupts out of her. Here is the vocal line: note the wide range and contour:

Follow along as you listen; Radames repeats it with his own outburst after Aida, so you hear it twice in succession. The melody dips and soars from low to high to low to high again. This has the effect of mimicking the rise and fall of human speech in an agitated, excited utterance. Sometimes we might say: "I can't believe you never told me where you were going." 

But if we're particularly outraged, it sounds more like:
"I can't be-LIEVE you NE-ver told me where you were GO-ing!!!", with a similar roller-coaster rise and fall of inflection. The effect of the outbursts of Amneris and Radames is visceral.

And one more.

Just as Radames' melody in "Celeste Aida" seemed to stretch upward, reaching for the sun and the heavens, Verdi comes full circle in the final duet with Aida, bidding farewell to earth as the supply of air in their underground tomb brings on death by suffocation. (Listen to the duet here.)
In an inspired bit of orchestration, observe that, as Aida introduces the melody of the finale, the strings are playing a thread of softly sustained notes in their highest register; this is a metaphor for the thinning-out of oxygen as death approaches.

But the tune itself features an upward leap of an octave, approached from the half-step below, obviously a gesture of reaching upward for the eternal life all Egyptians expected:

For the second time in this post, I wonder if any aspect of the theme strikes you as familiar from another context. It should. "O terra addio" has three grandchildren; one each in music theater, film and opera.
  • The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy's iconic "Somewhere over the rainbow" begins with its own upward leap of an octave. I need not point out that rainbows are "up there" - in the sky.
  • West Side Story: The song "There's a place for us", sung by Consuelo during the Act II balleta and later by Maria as Tony dies in her arms, is an anthem for the Puerto Rican teens who feel alienated in New York. The melody follows the pattern of a "reaching" gesture, this time falling one step short of an octave, only to make it all the way up on a second effort. Bernstein likely had Beethoven in mind more than Aida, as the opening phrase is a clone of a portion of the slow movement of Beethoven's "Emperor" piano concerto. But the symbolism matches that of Verdi.
  • Susannah: The title character of Carlisle Floyd's American opera sings the aria "Ain't it a pretty night" in Act I, In its affect and declaration of hopes and dreams, it has always struck me as a forerunner of Ariel's song "Part of their world" in the animated musical The Little Mermaid. Both characters feel trapped in the confines of their limited environs and long to explore new horizons. But only Susannah's solo contains the Aida-like leap from "do" to "ti", one half-step short of the octave. Unlike "O terra addio", which then continues on up to the full octave, "Pretty night" falls a full-step down from its highest note. Here's a facile but possibly valid interpretation of the difference in meaning:
Aida and Radames, in their minds at least, make it to eternal life above the "vale di pianti" of earthly sadness; thus, they "make it" up to the octave.

Susannah, as events unfold, ends up a permanent prisoner of her isolated cabin, a lifetime of bitterness stretching out in front of her. She doesn't make it all the way up.

February 9, 2020

Aida and three millennia of Egyptian-Ethiopian conflict

Faithful readers will recall that I was flabbergasted by the astonishing way in which current events in Chile dovetailed with Virginia Opera's production of Daniel Catán's Il Postino. I still can't get over that news headlines were reporting protest demonstrations and violence in Santiago even as the curtain went up on an opera depicting Chilean protest demonstrations and violence. Life imitated Art, as I noted in this post.
Author: Lourdes Cardenal
Used via the 
GNU Free Documentation License,

And now it's happening again with Verdi's Aida.

Most of us who learned Bible stories as kids likely frame Egyptian wars in terms of Israel. Moses in the bulrushes, "Let my people go", the plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea. Tensions between the two nations continued up to the Camp David accords of 1978. This was followed by a peace treaty that resulted in Anwar Sadat and Menahem Begin sharing the Nobel Peace Prize.

But, as Aida reminds us, Egypt's history of violent conflict with Ethiopia also extends back centuries before Christ. The difference?

Egypt and Ethiopia are on the brink of war even today, even as I write this.

To give Aida some helpful context, lets' examine relations between the two nations during three different eras.

1000 B.C.
This, more or less, is the period during which the doomed events of Verdi's masterpiece play out. War between Egypt and Ethiopia was continual, if not continuous. Today the two nations are separated by Sudan and Eritrea; in ancient times this buffer zone was known as Nubia, home to various empires such as the Kingdom of Kush which fought its own battles with Egypt in the 8th century B.C.

It seems that among the various gods worshipped by each country, they shared one in common known as Amon or Amun. In Egypt, Amun eventually became associated with the sun god Ra, called Amun-Ra. The cult of this god spread outside Egypt to Libya, Nubia and Ethiopia.

Interestingly, important people were sometimes given names acknowledging Amun; we observe this in Verdi's Aida where the Ehiopian king is Amonasro and the Pharaoh's daughter is Amneris. Common deities, however, did not prevent the back-and-forth of bloody battles.

The 19th Century
Egyptian-Ethiopian wars of the 1870's were partly a result of the decline of the Ottoman Empire. As the Khedive of Egypt broke away from Ottoman rule, he formulated ambitious plans: the incorporation of Sudan and Ethiopia into a new and powerful African Empire under his control. The Khedive was educated in France; as a result, his outlook was very pro-European and cosmopolitan (this helps to explain why he wished the Italian Verdi to create a French-style grand opera to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal).

So, in order to train his troops to the proper battle-ready standard, he recruited military men from all over the globe, including - ready for this? - American veterans from the American Civil War! Other military personnel came from Great Britain and Switzerland. These various experts were sent to Ethiopia to oversee two important battles: the Battle of Gundet in 1876 and the Battle of Gura the following year.

Despite the Khedive's planning and utilization of international assistance, both battles ended in victory for Ethiopia, with catastrophic loss of life and armaments for Egypt. It was a demoralizing loss; reports from the front mention panic on the part of Egyptian troops, abandoning their weapons and fellow soldiers in cowardice as enemy troops advanced.

For the second time in one opera season, real life is mirroring the fictional events in a music drama. As recently as October 2019, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Egypt and Ethiopia engineering peace negotiations with Eritrea. Well and good, but the fact is that his country and Egypt are on the brink of war, enmeshed in a hotly-contested dispute over the allocation of water from the Nile.

The Nile River has always been central to the survival of those countries through which it makes its northward journey. The past ninety years have seen three milestones in the regulation of water distribution. Great Britain brokered the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, an agreement cementing Egypt's share of this resource. Thirty years later Egypt's allocation was increased in a revised treaty.

But Ethiopia has thrown a wrench into the arrangements for water rights. In 2011 Ethiopia began construction on a gigantic project: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This involves a major tributary of the Nile known as the Blue Nile (see map above). The source of the Blue Nile is Ethiopia's Lake Tana which merges with the "White Nile" at Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.

The dam will improve Ethiopia's infrasturcture by providing much-needed electricity. There are massive objections on the part of Egypt, mainly based on these areas:

  • The dam will feature a new reservoir projected to contain 67 billion cubic meters of water;
  • It will take seven years to fill the reservoir to capacity;
  • During this seven-year period, the flow of water to Egypt will be reduced by 25%; and finally,
  • 90% of Egypt's drinking water comes from the Nile.
Right now, the dam construction represents the irrisistible force to Egypt's immovable object. Both sides refuse to give an inch. There have been at least two attempts at mediation, one set of talks overseen by Russia and another by the United States.

No progress.

It is said that any possible peaceful resolution will require the water ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to work with South Africa. If there is no resolution, Northeastern Africa may become a powder keg of possible regional war posing a grave threat to global stability.

And all this is playing out as the curtain rises on our production of an opera about war between these very nations. The shades of Amonasro and Radames are hovering restlessly over the banks of the Nile right now.

This is why I roll my eyes when modern critics complain that classic operas "are no longer relevant". 


Count me as among the die-hards who believe that it's impossible for art to be irrelevant.

February 2, 2020

The time the cops came for Rossini

Rossini’s La Cenerentola is an opera that might never have been written without the involvement of local police. 

The year 1816 saw Rossini juggling several assignments in a particularly hectic period of his burgeoning musical career. Projects included a revival of L’Italiana in Algeri in January; the premiere of Il barbieri di Siviglia in February; a new cantata in April; and two more new operas in September and December. It’s a shame railroads were not yet available, as Rossini was living the commuter life, making frequent jaunts from Naples (where he was Director of Royal Theaters) to Rome and back again.

A big opportunity brought the composer to Rome: the impresario Pietro Cartoni offered him a contract to create a new opera for the Teatro Valle on December 26 to open the Carnival season. The terms included the generous fee of 500 scudi, or about $30,000.

As time passed, however, things got complicated. Rossini was expected to report to Rome in October to meet with Cartoni and begin work in earnest. But delays resulting from his over-crowded schedule pushed the start-up date to December 3; this caused the new opera to be moved from the first production of the season to the second. Even December 3 proved impossible as it conflicted with the premiere of Rossini’s Otello on December 4.

A second snag involved a complete rejection of the original subject and librettist chosen. The new opera was originally to be called Laurina alla corte, with a libretto by Gaetano Rossi. At first, Rossini appeared pleased with the drafts he received from Rossi, expressing praise for its theatricality. But as October turned to November, Rossini seemed to lose interest in the whole project, ignoring Cartoni and going incommunicado.

That’s when the cops got involved.

Cartoni, after what must have been several sleepless nights, requested that the Chief of the Naples Police Force compel the wayward genius to comply with the contract he’d signed or face the consequences. Resigned to his legal obligations, Rossini finally showed up in Rome to begin work. But more problems were to come!

The draft of Laurina alla corte, the proposed libretto for Rome, ran afoul of the censors. After fruitless attempts to avoid censorship without drastically altering the story, the opera was abandoned. Another snag: Rossi was no longer available, committed to another project. Cartoni now had a composer, but no subject and no librettist, with the Carnival clock tick-tocking ominously.

This is when all parties agreed on the subject of the familiar fairy-tale Cinderella at literally the last possible moment. You may wonder how this opera was composed – and rehearsed! – in such a brief window of time.

The answer is: Rossini and his new librettist Jacopo Ferretti, um, “borrowed” the libretto of a recent Cinderella opera called Agatina, o La Virtù premiata by Stefano Pavesi, staged at La Scala only two years earlier! Fortunately for posterity, the concept of intellectual property was not yet in existence.

The downside of Rossini’s procrastination is described in Herbert Weinstock’s biography of the composer. With the music having been completed at such a late date, there was insufficient time for the artists – oh, pity the artists – to learn their roles. Ferretti wrote of the first performance that “all those taking part in the performance on that fatal first night had rapid pulses and the sweat of death dripping from their pallid foreheads.”

It must have been a horrendous performance; it was greeted with catcalls from the audience. Rossini predicted that once everyone learned their parts his Cinderella would be fought over by prima donnas and performed all over Europe.

He wasn’t wrong.

January 26, 2020

American Idol, The Masked Singer, and.... Cinderella?

Listen, my idea of "reality TV" is watching a baseball game on cable, okay? I'm not a fan of much of the genre, and that goes double for singing contests like "American Idol" and "The Masked Singer" and any others that have had their moment in the sun. Longtime readers of this blog will be familiar with one of my issues: the appearance (read: "exploitation") of young girls singing opera.
Joyce DiDonato: Italian Idol?

I expressed myself on this point in a 2012 post that went viral and still collects hundreds of hits per month. You can read it here.

But I "get it"; I understand the appeal of such shows. Fans of these adjudicated talent parades want to be dazzled by each contestant; they are looking (as are the judges) for the "wow factor" - that rare combination of vocal chops and charisma that makes eyes pop and jaws drop.

And then, I presume, they like to argue about it the next day on Twitter or around the water cooler at the office. Bad singers who won, great singers who got robbed, and so on and so on until the next installment. 

Now let's go back in time a couple of hundred years. Two centuries ago (this will shock some of you), there was no TV and no social media.  No "Italian Idol". 

But they had the 18th-century equivalent: ITALIAN OPERA!

It strikes me that the best way to consume a bel canto opera (more on that term below) like Rossini's Cinderella is to understand it as an implicit competition among the singers who portray Angelina, Ramiro, Magnifico and the rest of the characters.

The basic translation of bel canto is inadequate, as this school of operatic singing is much more than "beautiful", a word that could really be applied to any style of singing that people enjoy. 

To me, the important point is this: during the heyday of Italian bel canto (to my mind, the first four decades of the 1800's), the art of singing reached its highest peak of technical development. The full potential of the human voice was realized at levels previously unknown and never since surpassed.

Composers were now challenging singers to master instrumental techniques; to execute rapid scales and figuration with stunningly accurate articulation just as one takes for granted in an orchestral instrument like the flute or violin. Trills, ornamentation of melodic lines, pin-point leaps from low to high notes and an extended vocal range are other elements that now became commonplace.

Now consider Cinderella through this prism. Each musical number, be it an aria or an ensemble, is an opportunity for the artists on stage to impress us with the "wow factor" of their vocal technique. As the action progresses, each, in a sense, tries to outdo what has come before. Magnifico's rapid patter is great, but then Ramiro takes the lead with an aria combining coloratura with a handful of brilliant high C's -- WOW! And so on.

One after another they make their entrances, showering our ears with pyrotechnics and bewildering us with the apparent effortlessness with which devilishly difficult passages are tossed off.

And then it's all capped off by the final number, Angelina's "Non più mesta", a showpiece combining not only advanced instrumental-like virtuosity, but a common instrumental structure as well: Theme and Variations.

I suspect Rossini may have had Mozart's 12 variations on "Ah vous dirai-je, Maman" as his model for this aria. Both feature a particularly simple, even child-like theme followed by figural variations requiring rapid figuration.

To appreciate the comparison, listen to the theme and first variation or two in this recording of the Mozart.

Now Rossini's offering as sung by Joyce DiDonato.

This is an adaptation of Mozart's instrumental style as opposed to his vocal style; the coloratura in his Italian operas never extended to this level of difficulty; only in The Magic Flute is there an example of instrumental virtuosity in the two arias of the Queen of the Night.

Here I must doff my cap to the wonderful classical music critic Anne Midgette, just recently retired from her position as chief critic for the Washington Post, who conjured up this striking image of the effect of a good performance of "Non più mesta":

Angelina’s final aria … should, if it’s to stay true to the spirit of the music, really end with the singer’s head exploding, like a Muppet’s. (Anne, I'm quoting this in all my Rossini lectures these days, but I always credit you. It's a wonderful visual!)

And if the artist meets the challenge and knocks our socks off, perhaps in the minds and hearts of the audience SHE will be crowned ITALIAN IDOL; perhaps her name will be all the buzz in the next day's opera gossip; perhaps she will be the subject of heated argument and debate among aficionados of fine singing.

As it should be.

The photo of Joyce DiDonato is by A MA and is used via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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 ( 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.....