May 11, 2013

Carousel: Rigoletto, Ford and Billy Bigelow

Rodgers and Hammerstein
In Billy Bigelow's epic solo "Soliloquy", Richard Rodgers stretched the conventions of American
musical theater to the breaking point, flexing his compositional muscles to craft an extended number that remains a challenge for singing actors to this day.

As the title makes clear, the solo is neither a "song" in the music theater sense nor an "aria" in the operatic sense, though it employs the musical language of both music theater and opera within its 270 measures. For a parallel form, look to Giuseppe Verdi, a figure who wasn't averse to breaking with conventions himself. In Act I, scene 2 of Rigoletto, the title character muses at length on his fears and resentments in the monologue "Pari siamo", sung by Robert Merrill in this recording. Eschewing pat musical templates such as ternary (ABA) form or verse/refrain, the music follows the character's changing moods and trains of thought exactly, introducing new musical material as needed. The vocal line is now conversational, imitating speech, now lyrical and expressive.

Another classic example of this sort of thing occurs in Verdi's final (and best, it says here) masterpiece Falstaff (which opens our season next September at Virginia Opera). Ford has come to believe his wife Alice is having an affair with the fat knight Falstaff, a concept so ludicrous that Ford comes off as comically irrational. He expresses his anger and bitterness in a solo of volcanic outbursts: "E sogno? O realta?". (The link takes you to a fine performance by Sir Thoman Allen.) Again employing a mixture of recitative and lyrical melody, Verdi manipulates the listener into vicariously experiencing Ford's emotional roller coaster - all with a seamless fountain of constantly new material.

Verdi is not alone in adopting this sort of format; other notable operatic examples include Tonio's Prologue to Pagliacci  and Michele's grim "Nulla! Silenzio!" in Puccini's Il Tabarro

From these models, Rodgers carefully borrowed some procedures yet did not go so far as to produce a completely through-composed number, or one in which (as with Ford's monologue) there is virtually no repetition of musical ideas. 

Yet the technique of continually introducing new musical material throughout remains, resulting in a complex architectural structure that is a hybrid of Broadway and the opera house. I have outlined it like this:

I. FIRST INTRODUCTION (introspective; musing)
   A. Bars 1-25, Moderato, 4/4: "I wonder what he'll think of me?"
   B. Bars 26-41: Piu mosso, 2/2: "I'll teach him to wrassle", etc.

II. "BILL" SOLO (vigorous, robust)
   A. Bars 42-77, Allegro, 2/4: "My boy Bill, I will see that he's named after me" etc.
   B. Bars 79-113, Con moto, 6/8: "I don't give a damn what he does", etc.
   A' Bars 114-151: Allegro, 2/4 "My boy Bill, he'll be tall", etc.
   Coda, Bars 152-167, Poco piu mosso, 2/2: "And I'm damned if he'll marry", etc.

III. TRANSITION (dreamy, relaxing in energy)
  Bars 168-189, Moderato (slower), 2/2: "I can see him when he's seventeen or so", etc.

IV. SECOND INTRODUCTION (more introspective musing)
   A. Bars 190-209, Original tempo, "You can have fun with a son", etc.
   B. Bars 210-221, 2/2: "When I have a daughter", etc. (NOTE: this section is always cut in performance.)

V. "DAUGHTER" SOLO (gentle, lyrical)
   A. Bars 222-229, Broader (with warmth) 4/4: "My little girl, pink and white" etc.
   B. Bars 230-237, "Dozens of boys pursue her", etc.
   A. Bars 238-244: "She has a few pink and white", etc.

VI. FINALE (increasing in anxiety and desperation to the end)
   A. Bars 245-256, Poco piu mosso, 2/2: "I've got to get ready before she comes",etc.
   B. Bars 257-270, Con vigore; Grandioso, 2/2: "She's got to be sheltered", etc.

WHEW! And there are changes of key as well as contrasting meters, tempi and thematic material throughout. Yet enough of the old ABA song format is embedded in the monologue to give less sophisticated ears something to grab onto. I would offer this declaration: I can't imagine another composer having solved the problems of setting this lengthy speech musically with more conciseness, more apt psychology or more compelling effect than Richard Rodgers. The climax in Billy's final, desperate pledge to make, steal or take the money he needs is fully the equal of the parallel vocal climaxes in any of the four operatic soliloquies cited above. All five earn the cheers which customarily greet even an adequate performance.

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