Hello, dear Reader (for whomever may be reading this…).
Forgive me if I need to slow the post-pace a bit for the coming four to six weeks. This is the busiest time of year for me in regards to sewing deadlines, and I have school deadlines on top of it–through mid-May.
So, please don’t be surprised if my posts are a little sporadic for the coming weeks. I will try to keep a minimum of a post per week, even through the busy times.
This time last week, I shared a little something different: Karl Jenkins’ Ave Verum sung by two baritones, Simon Keenlyside and Bryn Terfel. (Link to the post of 25 March here, if desired.) I rather enjoyed that brief detour from the opera path, and thought I might make it a Friday tradition…thus, “‘lieding’ into the weekend!”
Strictly speaking, “lied” is defined a more narrowly than “song”, being rather specific to a trend in German Romantic music particularly of the 19th century. (Think: Schubert, Strauss, etc.) Oftentimes such lieder (plural form) will consist of the vocalist accompanied by piano.
I’ll be a good deal looser with my own Friday explorations, wanting to explore composers of various genres, or just attracted to what seems like it would be nice listening for a Sunday afternoon ~ but the tendency will be towards lieder as defined.
Though not strictly speaking in the “German lied” category, the influence is there. Here we have the great bass-baritone Bryn Terfel singing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Songs of Travel,” a Romantic-inspired cycle of nine songs written for a solo baritone voice, based on poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Some of these songs were already familiar to me from a Vaughan Williams CD my mom and I used to listen to years ago in the workshop, but I don’t remember the soloist being so beautifully suited to it as Bryn is here. (Well, we already know there really isn’t another Bryn!) And some of the individual songs I don’t recall hearing previously at all, such as the lovely and too-brief “Let Beauty Awake” that begins at approximately 3:13 in this video:
A little background on our composer:
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in the Cotswolds in 1872, educated at the Royal College of Music, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, served in the Great War, and died in 1958. There is a lovely little biography to be found at this link to the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society website.
“In the next world I shall not be doing music, with all its strivings and disappointments; I shall be being it.” ~Ralph Vaughan Williams
Vaughan Williams’ works are, among other things, consummate Englishness put to music. What a gift to have the richness of this Welsh baritone interpreting Scottish poetry put to English music! A dynamic and moving trio. I hope you enjoy it!
Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful weekend! I’ll see you Monday.
What more can one ask for: we are in Rome in 1800 during Napoleon’s Italian campaign. We have a republican-romantic-idealist painter (Mario Cavaradossi, sung by Jonas Kaufmann) deeply in love with another artist—a singer (Tosca, sung by Angela Gheorghiu), caught up in a political crisis when Mario decides to shelter a political prisoner (who shares his republican ideals and the belief that Napoleon will ride in on his white horse, so to speak, and help those ideals to come true).
All this, and their foil is one of the greatest villains in opera: Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia—sung and acted to perfection by the great bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.
Torture, murder, art, love, lust, politics, suicide, religion, Napoleon, Rome. A recipe for a phenomenal story. When wedded to the music of the incomparable Puccini and conducted by Antonio Pappano, you have pure magic.
This is the magic of Tosca, an 1899 masterpiece in three acts by Giacomo Puccini, first performed in 1900. This particular production is from 2011 at the Royal Opera House, and the DVD can be found on Amazon. I have heard it called “the” Tosca; “the best Tosca ever,” etc. And it really would be hard to argue with that. Though it really deserves to be experienced without much foreknowledge of the story, there is–spoiler alert!—a synopsis on Naxos, here.
The set is dramatic, and the staging often inspired (note: particularly the “Te Deum”…chills!); you have an absolute dream team of singers, at least two of whom (Bryn and Jonas) are also among the best actors in opera. It is just about as close to opera-theatre perfection as it gets.
About 6 weeks ago, almost simultaneously to seeing the filmed 2010 Paris Werther, I watched this production of Tosca with my family. Simply stunning.
If one is new to opera, Tosca would be the one I’d recommend starting with—and this particular production. I wouldn’t want to spoil some of the great arias (“E lucevan le stelle”; “Vissi d’arte”) if you haven’t heard them in context yet. But for a glimpse into Act I, I found the closest approximation that I could: our tenor singing the same role, but in a different production from a year earlier (Munich, 2010). Here is “Recondita armonia,” wherein Cavaradossi works on his painting of Mary Magdalene, comparing his model to the woman he loves:
See and hear how he savors it, milks it, especially at the end. The whole of the 2011 ROH production has the same intensity.
So, perhaps “whimsy” is not the first word that comes to mind when we think of Goethe’s—or Massenet’s—tragic and melancholy Werther.
But just for a little fun today–and for a final post on Werther before moving on–I had to share (for those who haven’t seen it already) a video that my friends Viv and Christine shared with me. It is one of several wonderfully impromptu, behind-the-scenes videos of our tenor (on YouTube) made by Esti Esther. This particular one is filmed right before Werther’s final, tragic scene in the 2010 Paris production.
Now, Jonas Kaufmann happens to be one of the best actors in opera, giving 110% in passion to each role. Most of us would think that, like some Daniel Day-Lewis of the “method acting” school, Jonas might be behind the scenes absorbed in meditations on poetry and death before such a big finale.
Day-Lewis’s career is filled with stories like that of the preparation for the 1993 In the Name of the Father, when he chose to live in solitary confinement, and went several nights without sleep to prepare for an interrogation scene.
Yet, here Jonas is, just before the big tragic finale scene in Act IV…well, just have a look for yourself. No commentary is needed. And one doesn’t need to understand French:
I thought I’d share that last thought (for now) on this marvelous production of Werther, before moving on to Tosca. I hope you enjoy it.
I can’t help but think: if only our tragic hero took such delight in gummy bears, he might not have needed to borrow those guns from Albert.
I’m sure those who are long-time opera fans have known about this for quite a while. But for the newbies like me: if you’re in the mood to watch opera on a fairly regular basis, it looks like a reasonable deal at $14.99/month. (And my mom and I are looking at going in on it together…not bad at $7.50/mo per person!) And there is a free 7-day trial. (See how I’m attempting to convince myself…?)
One highlight among many from the 575+ recordings available from MOD: there is another production of Werther, again with Jonas in the title role and Sophie Koch as Charlotte, done at the Met a few years after the 2010 Paris production. Here is a teaser clip of Werther’s “O Nature” aria from Act I (the last part of the aria):
“I have so much in me, and the feeling for her absorbs it all; I have so much, and without her it all comes to nothing.” ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Sorrows of Young Werther”
This little aria, our introduction to the character Werther, is really is a prayer to nature, as is highlighted by the first line: “O nature, full of grace,” echoing the Hail Mary. In the Paris production, Werther ends the aria in a kind of childlike wonder, almost ecstasy, basking in the beauty of the sunlight as though before the altar of his idol. The beginning of the aria, roughly translated, runs thus:
O nature, plein de grâce,
Reine du temps et de l’espace,
Daigne accueillit celui qui passe
Et te salue, humble mortel!
~ ~ ~
O nature, full of grace,
Queen of time and space,
Deign to welcome this passer-by
Who salutes you–this humble mortal!
We almost feel: if only his devotion had remained limited to the simple and abundant glories of nature–rather than becoming distracted by the far more complex and fickle attractions of romantic love–he might have been happier…
But then, where is the drama in that?
“Is this the destiny of man? Is he only happy before he has acquired his reason or after he has lost it?” ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Sorrows of Young Werther”
But for today, on this Good Friday, I thought I’d take a pause in the opera journey to share something a little different: a modern Ave Verum by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins. (Fun fact: he is the first Welsh composer to receive a knighthood!) Jenkins is known especially for his Adiemus, Requiem, and The Armed Man: a Mass for Peace. This Ave Verum is, perhaps, my mom’s favorite piece of music. (Thank you, Debra, for finding it!)
One of the unique things about this piece is that it is sung, unconventionally, by two beautiful, brilliant baritones: Simon Keenlyside and Bryn Terfel. (In Bryn’s case, bass-baritone.) To me, their voices blend so exquisitely in this unusual and wounding treasure. I hope you enjoy it!
I will take a post-break for the coming day or two. Thank you for reading! Whether or not you celebrate Easter and the Triduum, I hope your coming days are filled with beauty, and peace.
I certainly could have made good use of this tome over the past month and a half! One thing which has to be tackled when one is trying to see opera on the cheap—or simply just to see many operas which aren’t available on conventional DVD/Bluray with the option of subtitles (and more re: Premiere Opera later)—is how to get ahold of librettos (or “libretti”).
The Book of 101 Opera Librettos isn’t exactly a book to sneak into one’s purse if you’re lucky enough to go to live opera…might as well haul around a few bowling balls. Better to read the libretto beforehand, if needed. But it certainly works in the comfort of your living room–
Mostly. Problems arise when one has to keep deciding whether to look down at the libretto to comprehend what is being said, versus staring at a certain tenor who shall remain nameless. Or when tears are streaming down one’s face, obscuring the too-small type.
I’ve read mixed things about this book. Apparently some of the choices in translation are a little eccentric, as are some of the choices of which operas to include, and which to exclude…
(Where is Don Carlo??)
As to the last question, perhaps it has to do with the several versions there are (in French and Italian) of this opera…but I still find it a puzzling omission. More on Don Carlo and its multiple versions later.
Nonetheless, I’m grateful to have this book…if nothing else, I can use it as a booster seat.
By a happy accident, I’d forgotten to cancel my free trial of Amazon Prime last year—I have about 5 days left at the moment—and so the first opera I saw with our wonder-tenor Jonas Kaufmann is viewable for free, compliments of Prime and Medici (at least here in the US), and can be found here.
Werther is Jules Massenet’s four-act opera of 1887, based on a 1774 novel by Goethe. This is the 2010 production of the Opera National de Paris, starring our tenor in the title role, Sophie Koch as Charlotte, and Ludovic Tezier as Charlotte’s fiancé Albert. A good synopsis can be found at Naxos, here.
As you might imagine, our tenor is sublime as the poetic, melancholy, Nature-worshipping Werther, whose doomed love of Charlotte—affianced to Albert before love awakens between herself and the young poet—leads to tragedy.
Please don’t miss this beautiful, moving performance and production. For a taste of it, click the link above—or here—to the heart-stopping aria, “Pourquoi me réveiller?” (“Why rouse me?”) You won’t want to be awakened from the dream, either…
It was approximately 7:30am PST on February 5th 2016 that I first heard the voice of Jonas Kaufmann and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The means: an innocent-looking facebook link to their Pearl Fishers duet from a concert (“Hvorostovsky and Friends”) in Moscow of 2008.
I had not followed opera ~ except for perhaps one or two Bryn Terfel productions on dvd ~ since I was a little girl with a crush on Samuel Ramey. However, having grown up with the marvelous Zeffirelli production of Turandot with Placido Domingo, my family and I had finally taken advantage the previous evening of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD cinema showings ~ this time, the Met’s most recent Zeffirelli-based production of Turandot. Swedish soprano Nina Stemme was phenomenal as the lead, and the set was glorious to behold.
As we were underwhelmed by the Calaf, however, Debra (my marvelous mom) went on a search for current tenors ~ again, we had not been following opera ~ and came across the wonder-tenor Jonas Kaufmann. (Had we been under a rock all these years…?)
Never would we have imagined that any tenor after Domingo would have a voice of a similar quality. Mr Kaufmann’s is reminiscent of his, yet altogether unique; his has a darker texture than that of most tenors. Emotional, rich, “veiled”–as I have heard it described. Sublime. (But, truthfully, I don’t think the perfect word has yet been invented.)
And glorious Dmitri Hvorostovsky? A heart-stoppingly beautiful baritone, whose presence and power are unmatched, and who brings emotional richness and captivating charm to every role. Dima, we love you!
Little did Debra know what she would start with the innocent sharing of a link to a duet.
Since that time (about a month and a half later, as I record this), I’ve managed to see filmed or YouTube versions of operas such as Don Carlo (oh, have I fallen for Verdi, or what!), La Fanciulla del West, Il Trovatore, La Forza del Destino, Andrea Chénier, Manon Lescaut, Tosca, and Werther; I’ve seen Mr Kaufmann’s glorious An Evening with Puccini in the local cinema; and have discovered innumerable arias and lieder that have brought joy and light into a busy little life.
In a world filled with tragedy and loss, it is a great gift to find joy in the Beauty of something so well done, and so passionately. I thought of scribbling my thoughts here, as I continue to journey into this wonderful world, even if no one else were to read them.
But one of the best joys is discovering other opera fans and friends! I’m learning more by the day, and love sharing the love right back.
I figure: if one who has little to no means to spend on travel and expensive opera tickets and no formal musical knowledge or training, nor a facility for languages other than my own, can appreciate the great gift that opera is…well, anyone can. (And should, if possible!)
Jonas, Dmitri, and all of these great artists have opened ~ to this family, at least ~ the wide landscape of opera.
Oh, what have we been missing all these years?
A humble “thank you” to all artists who bring light and beauty into our lives.