I have been listening rather obsessively to Jonas’ most recent album of French repertoire, L’Opéra. (That is, when I’m not obsessively relistening to passages from Don Carlos!) One can see and sample, at the previous link, the arias included in this album, from Gounod to Massenet to Bizet, including a gorgeous “Au fond du temple saint” sung with Ludovic Tézier.
This album is more “up my alley,” as they say, than the recent Dolce Vita. (But hey, I would listen to Jonas sing the alphabet song, when it comes to that, so I am far from complaining!) L’Opéra is exquisitely sung and orchestrated, and the CD comes in a beautiful cover with a booklet of photos ~ including some of the stunning Palais Garnier which comprises the outside and inside background of the CD cover ~ and the lyrics to each aria, both in English and French.
Aside from the dazed and giddy feeling on hearing Jonas sing my name in #12 (“Rachel, quand du Seigneur” from La Juive, by Fromental Halévy), the real revelation of this beautiful album was, for me, first hearing the transcendent aria from Massenet’s Le Cid, “Ô Souverain, ô Juge, ô Père.” I am surprised that this aria has managed to escape me before. It was truly a revelation, and has sent me on a quest to get to know this opera. (Link above to Jonas singing it previous to the album.)
Ah! All is over, finished! My beautiful dream of glory, my dreams of happiness, have flown away forever!
You take away my love, you take away my victory, Lord, I submit myself to you! Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father, always veiled, (but) always present, I loved you when times were good (prosperous) And I praise you on somber days I go where your law leads me, free of human regrets. Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father, your image alone for my soul is where I submit into your hands.
Oh Heaven above, so blue, so bright… spirits from above, looked at me, although this soldier may be in despair, but his Christian faith remains. You may come, you may appear to me, at the dawn of the eternal day. Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father! As the servant of a just Lord, I will respond to your call without fear, Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father!
It is too bad, in a way, that recordings of the aria in concert don’t tend to include the brief interlude of the chorus of heavenly voices, including that of St. James, as it does in the opera. It of course makes sense…but still, it is so beautiful that I wish it could be included in every version.
A few notes on the opera: Massenet’s 4-act opera premiered in Paris in 1885, based on the Pierre Corneille play, with libretto by Louis Gallet, Adolphe d’Ennery and Edouard Blau. The story is one of honor and duty, versus love; of interpersonal and familial struggles within the politics of 11th century Spain. Rodrigue, a valiant warrior who is later nicknamed “le Cid” (“the Lord”), is knighted by the King in Act I, and Rodrigue’s hoped-for marriage to his beloved Chimène is approved. But in addition to these honors, Rodrigue’s father, Don Diègue, is made the protector of the King’s daughter. This act is felt, by the Conte de Gormas (Chimène’s father), to be a deliberate snub to himself. Gormas proceeds to insult Don Diègue, compromising the latter’s honor. In order to regain it, Don Diègue begs his son to challenge Gormas. Rodrigue knows that such an act would estrange him from his beloved Chimène forever; yet, honor bids him fight. Ironically, as my mom has pointed out about the original Corneille play, the very thing that Chimène loves about Rodrigue is his honor; thus, it is a catch-22. I won’t spoil the rest, except to say that the exquisite aria comes in the midst of what Rodrigue believes will be his final battle for the glory of Spain, as he and his army appear to be defeated, or nearly so.
I loved this opera, and want to continue to get better acquainted with it. Along with the stunning Act III aria ~ a fulfillment of earlier set-up in Rodrigue’s vision of, and dedication to, Saint James of Compostella ~ I also particularly loved the Act I knighting scene, and the ceremonial chorus of bells and voices that precedes and follows it.
Unfortunately, there is no recording, CD nor DVD nor elsewhere, of our tenor singing the title role. So, I looked elsewhere, and found a broadcast which, at the time of this writing, is available on YouTube, from the Washington Opera, with Placido Domingo and Elisabete Matos. I chose this recording first because of the obliging English subtitles. It was a lovely production with spectacular costumes and staging, even if the video quality looks like a VHS recording of a TV broadcast, which might well be the case. It’s a treasure.
My second experience of the opera was also thanks to YouTube. It is from l’Opéra de Marseille, 2011, with Roberto Alagna in the lead and it still can be found at this link at the time of this post. I waited on this production, as it doesn’t have the English subtitles, but once I had the gist of the story I was happy to follow along without them.
I loved the costumes in this one, and the casting overall. Béatrice Uria-Monzon was a fantastic Chimène. It took me a bit to warm up to her, but I ended up loving both her voice and overall portrayal. She is strong and fierce, without losing a certain emotional vulnerability which is crucial. I felt the chemistry between the two leads, especially in their big scene together before the battle. As to Roberto, he not only has a beautiful voice especially for French repertoire, but there is something about him that makes our hearts go out to him; he is eminently watchable and lovable.
His visible distress, his hopeless courage, give one the irrational wish to take him into one’s arms and reassure him. One hears it in his voice: the earnest, distressed appeal. It is irresistible and I was behind him completely. It is this quality that makes Roberto so compelling in the earnest, noble, and self-sacrificing roles. It is what makes him such a lovely Don Carlos, particularly in the French, and a heartbreaking Cyrano de Bergerac.
What is it about the French repertoire that is so compelling at this time? From the French Don Carlos, to the French version of Les Vêpres Siciliennes, to Le Cid and L’Opéra…it seems to be a recurring theme at the moment. All I can say is that it is a beauty that has come rather unlooked for, and I’m thirsting for more.
I’ve been home a week now, not yet recovered, reflecting on “mon jour suprême,” as Rodrigue would say, seeing and hearing Jonas live in the French version of my favorite opera. To have heard, in real time and in relatively close space, the one whose voice made me fall in love with opera and who brought music back into my life altogether, lifting my soul out of sadness, was a miraculous gift. A dream.
And speaking of gifts, what a gift it was to have spent time with kindred spirits ~ friends made through this mad passion that is opera-love. So many of us said that Jonas ~ and/or opera in general ~ have brought us together. A supreme gift. And that is only the beginning…we are already planning more adventures to come.
I suppose that, for many who first encounter the world of opera, we cling to a particular “opera guide,” to borrow the phrase of my friend Laura. The guide is that singer who gives us access to new works and help us to latch onto them, because we have first latched onto him or her. We feel comfortable with our guide; he or she helps us to make sense of what is new. We feel with his feelings, and see with his eyes. For one of my friends, this guide is Ruggero Raimondi; for another, James Morris and Ferruccio Furlanetto; for another, Domingo. I am sure that many have taken Jonas for their opera guide, and certainly he has been mine. From Massenet’s Werther (the first Jonas opera I saw on video, from the 2010
Paris production) to Tosca ~ especially the unforgettable live-stream of April, 2016 ~ to An Evening with Puccini to La Fanciulla del West to Don Carlo to Otello to Wagner ~ and I was afraid of Wagner! ~ the
list goes on. Jonas has lifted ~ and broken ~ my heart countless times. His voice has become a light and inspiration, a consolation, and a reminder of why we are alive.
As he stumbles barefoot onto the stage of Don Carlos, we can hear his sobs. (I start blubbering myself by the time he has given Elisabeth the portrait of the Infante to surprise her, and sings, “Je suis Carlos…Je t’aime!” / “I am Carlos and I
love you!”) The projected images of his near-breakdown across the stage send a terror up the spine. His pianissimo is wrenching. Our breathing stops at his voice at such moments, and we are adrift at sea…a sea that is ominous, dark, exquisite, and sometimes terrifying.
In the recent documentary, Jonas Kaufmann, Tenor for the Ages, “our tenor” comments on the interesting phenomenon of the effect he has on so many; how we (his fans) seem to feel as though we are in a kind of relationship with him…and yet, we can know him to a degree, though he cannot possibly know each and every one of us.
He can’t possibly know that so-and-so came all the way from Oregon to hear him, and that she’d been working very hard to make it happen; or that this other fan came from Australia, or England, or Ireland; nor that he changed this or that person’s life forever. We might forget that he can’t possibly know all of this. It is an odd dynamic. Even our tendency to call him, or refer to him as, “Jonas” ~ rather than “Herr Kaufmann” or “Maestro Kaufmann” ~ is, I think, indicative of his approachability, and the affection and intimacy we feel for this beloved tenor. He is “our Jonas,” “our tenor.” His infectious laugh, his kindness, his intelligence, his disarming smile, his enthusiasm…all are clear in every interview, and his presence on stage and screen compels us to feel every emotion with him. But really, when I stop to reflect on this as relates to the tenor himself, how unique ~ and beautifully strange ~ a relationship this is.
It really hit home when, after the emotional impact of my second Don Carlos of October 22nd, the “three little maids” and our friends were not allowed to remain beyond the security barrier to wait for the cast. (Mio Carlo, Viv, was truly heroic in her efforts to “sweet talk” the security guard to allow us to remain! But it was not to be.) All of us were pressed just on the other side of the barrier. It was impossible, in those fleeting moments ~ he is walking into a virtual wave of fans pouring out and around him ~ to say something personal and meaningful as he graciously tries to accommodate everyone’s desire to have a moment, a signature, or a photo.
After he signed my program ~ which I didn’t really need, as I already have a treasured signature of his which was obtained for me in January by mio Carlo, Viv ~ I asked if I might shake his hand. Instead, I kissed it. In the moment, it was the only means of communication that occurred to me, as I didn’t have the words.
Later, as he walked through the crowd (the parting of the Red Sea) Viv and I followed without thought or aim, in a kind of daze ~ at least, that was my own state of mind ~ half-conscious that we were very time-crunched, needing to catch the last Eurostar that night so that I could make my plane from London in the morning. Jonas stopped at one point to allow some photos to be taken, and in a brief moment after one of his fans stepped away, this shy Oregonian stepped in and asked on impulse, “Jonas, may I have a photo?” (I followed this up with a “My hero!” which I’m not sure that he heard…) Still in a daze, I unthinkingly rested my head against his scarf and jacket as Viv snapped the photos. (And I didn’t even say “Il core vi dono!” Such restraint! 😉 ) He is so gracious. After that, I suppose I could have flown back to Oregon without the plane. (Viv and I did literally run across the street and back to collect our luggage, hardly conscious of the traffic, or of anything else!)
I will treasure that memory as long as I live. For him, I suppose, it was only another fan, and another moment; for me, the whole experience was the “jour suprême.”
How can one say, in a moment ~ even if one could remain clear-headed enough to express it ~ how truly appreciative we are of his great gift that he shares with us? To remark what a wonderful performance it was, or how “beautiful” it was, seems so terribly insufficient that we might resign ourselves to silence.
One would need the words that Charles Dickens gives to the broken Sydney Carton, who was “recalled to life” by the presence of Lucie. That Sydney knows he can never mean anything to Lucie personally, does not alter the fact that she has had a great impact on his life; she has made him a better man simply by her existence in the world. “You have stirred old shadows that I thought had died out of me.” Perhaps we wish we could be a Rodrigue, or a Don Quichotte ~ tilting at windmills ~ or a Sydney, for our tenor. “It is useless to say it, I know, but it rises out of my soul. For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything…”
His investment in each and every role, his intelligence and thoughtful interpretation of character, his quality as an actor…all are, of course, part of what goes into this alchemy. His unique voice, so dark and haunting. But there is something still indefinable and ineffable. A depth of humanity ~ an empathy ~ is communicated in every note. Too, perhaps one has the feeling ~ the imagining ~ that he is singing to you yourself, directly. I have heard masterful audiobook readers that, one would swear, are speaking directly to you, whispering in your ear and telling you the story, as though no one else was present. They are reading for you. And, they have the ability to communicate the heart of the story, as if from within. This almost ineffable poignancy and intimacy does come through, in the voice itself, when one has the gift of mastery. It is that special something that perhaps separates a talented voice from a masterful and life-changing one. It is this something that makes an audience applaud for an unheard-of number of minutes, interrupting the flow of an opera, to hear again the devastating “E lucevan le stelle” with unearthly pianissimo. Whatever “it” is, this something breaks our hearts and makes us wish to be better than we are, simply in gratitude that such beauty is possible in this world, like a glimpse of paradise.
“Mon âme, à votre voix, rêve du paradis!” / “My soul, at your voice, dreams of paradise!”
~ Don Carlos, Act II
Jonas’ unique voice, veiled and shadowy, communicates a mystery, a longing. If longing for the inexpressible had a voice, it would be his.
And, perhaps, in a better world than this, where time itself is irrelevant and there is no press of the crowd, no jostling for that impossible “moment” to communicate our thanks, our Jonas just might understand something of the impact that his hard work ~ and his great gift ~ have had upon each one of us. But I hope he glimpses it now, and that it makes him smile. Certainly, there is one little seamstress out West who will carry this gratitude in her heart always.
“Je cherche en vain la paix et l’oubli du passé: De celle qui me fut ravie l’image erre avec moi dans ce cloître glacé!” / “I seek in vain the peace and oblivion of the past! The image of her whom they have stolen from me remains with me in this dread cloister!”
~Don Carlos, Act II
As “Part Two” of my “Don Carlos Adventure,” I wanted to reflect on the production of the opera that brought my friends and I to make the trip in the first place. (The link to “Part One,” an overall summary of our trip, can be found here.)
As an avid theatre-goer, I am entirely accustomed to modern updates, however seemingly “time-bound” the play–Shakespeare’s history plays, for example. But as an opera, Don Carlo(s)--my favorite opera–has always struck me as one that doesn’t lend itself as easily to any time and setting outside its own. So, when I’d heard that the Carlos I was so looking to was to have an updated setting and a modern ambiance, I was somewhat disappointed. I consoled myself with the thought that I would be hearing the cast of a lifetime in Jonas Kaufmann, Ildar Abdrazakov, Ludovic Tezier, Sonya Yoncheva and Elīna Garanča—conducted by the masterful Philippe Jordan. At worst, I thought, I could close my eyes at times and just revel in the sound, if need be.
I have never been happier to be wrong in my life.
I was haunted and compelled from my first viewing on the night of October 19th during my trip-of-a-lifetime to see this Carlos in person, in Paris. The whole production had a strange, haunting elegance. Leaving the best night of my life, emotionally shipwrecked, I tried to reason with myself: surely, this blissful reaction is just because I am so emotionally overwhelmed at the sheer beauty of Verdi’s music, Jordan’s conducting, and the experience of seeing and hearing so many opera heroes for the first time in person. I must have put on rose-tinted glasses about the production itself…
But it continued to haunt me. By the time I watched some of the live-stream (later that same night after we saw it in person) and then went to see it for the second time on the 22nd, I was deeply in love with the production itself, directed by cinema-lover Krzysztof Warlikowski. It is a combination of an impressionistic silent film, whose imagery is neither overwhelming, nor on-the-nose. Nothing is showy and abstract for its own sake, but leaves one with the tragic sadness of this particular vision of Don Carlos. It is a perfect vehicle for this more melancholy, French-language version of Verdi’s great opera, which is so much more widely known in the Italian. On the contrast between the French and Italian, Zachary Woolfe of the New York Times brings up some fantastic points in his review, linked here.
At the opening, a melancholy prince emerges from the shadows before the music begins, wrists bandaged after a recent suicide attempt, leaning over a washbasin. His is a tragic, purposeless existence. Repelled by a father who gives him no credit, he is even wearing what resembles a King’s College cricket jumper, as though he has nothing better to do than play sports and fritter away his time. He is underused, undervalued, disregarded. The bare but elegant stage, the intense focus on the internal state of our hero and the relationships between the characters, is consummately Shakespearean: we’re reminded of the estrangement between the little-regarded Prince Hal and his father the king, or of the tragic Hamlet, “passion’s slave.”
At first, I was mildly puzzled by how the desk and chaise-longue fit into this opening scene in the forest of Fontainebleau, but the impression I was left with is that it is his own retreat—or a kind of exile.
Élisabeth enters in a wedding gown—which, as Viv noted, appears to be a direct hommage to Grace Kelly’s wedding gown—in ghostly white, though looking more as though she is going to a funeral. Or, perhaps, as though she has died already. At this point, neither Élisabeth nor Carlos know one another; they only know that their fates are controlled by their fathers, and the cruelty of destiny.
Projected images of the various leads fill the set background at key emotional transitions: Carlos, the ultimate tragic lead, is shown at various times looking as though he is on the brink of a nervous breakdown, sometimes lifting a gun to his head. The shadow passing across the face of Élisabeth’s projected image as she accepts the “offer she cannot refuse” ~ marriage to Philippe ~ is rending.
A central image is that of the cage—illustrative of the interior cage that each of the characters carries around with them at all times—and this image appears in various guises throughout the production. The set itself is a kind of elegant cage: we see, alternately, Carlos, Élisabeth, or Eboli behind the red cage that appears at various intervals on either side of the stage. Élisabeth uses sunglasses to cage her eyes from view and hide her tormented emotions. Bars across the fencing studio (the Act II, Scene 2 garden setting with Eboli and the ladies-in-waiting) give the impression of a cage. The cage-like shadows across Philippe and Rodrigue during the “Restez!” scene have an understated power. The room where we see Philippe and Eboli lounging in Act IV is a stifling box of a room. We might go on and on. Ultimately, each character is a solitary prisoner, tormented and alone.
Like Hamlet, Carlos could say: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” (II.ii). And indeed, there is a strongly dream-like quality to the production whose atmosphere and motifs echo the world of silent cinema. Flickering shadows fill the stage at various intervals, as though we are seeing images cast by an old film projector ~ a film, perhaps, that hasn’t been yet restored by Criterion ~ of something whose beauty and grandeur has been lost to a dreamlike yesteryear. Did this grandeur ever truly exist as we imagine? It is all the more poignant for its ephemeral quality. To quote Hamlet again, “a dream itself is but a shadow.”
Again, going back to the cage theme: shadows of the cloistral “cage” fall across Carlos in the cloister of Saint Yuste monastery, only dissipated, for the moment, by the entrance of opera hero, Rodrigue, the consummate honorable and faithful friend, sung so exquisitely by the understated baritone Ludovic Tézier.
The lead-up to the beautiful friendship duet is so entirely different in French than in Italian, that previous to this production, it took me some time to grow accustomed to it; since this version, however, it has become for me an immense treasure. The haunting and understated pre-duet is a testament to friendship amidst tragedy. Even the different tone of “Demande à Dieu la force d’un héros!” in the French version, is less a triumphant call to heroism than a plea for suffering resignation. (And really, the very idea that Carlos could be ready for a life of leadership in suffering Flanders, when he is so broken, is another part of the tragedy and poignancy not only of the French Carlos, but very particularly of this production.)
“Thou speakest of times that long have passed away. I, too, have had my visions of a Carlos, whose cheek would fire at freedom’s glorious name, but he, alas! has long been in his grave…those dreams are past!”
~Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos
A white horse stands not quite center stage, for a long period; it is an image that is never entirely clear, and yet, the more I lived with it, the more it felt strangely appropriate, like an image that is part of a “paradise lost”; a future that might have been; childhood; of the moment of happiness at Fontainebleau at the opening; or of nature, and natural emotions, suppressed, cast aside…frozen in time. As to the latter, the production is filled with such indications of natural emotions suppressed or frozen, from the guarded meeting between Élisabeth and Carlos at the opening, to the entrance of Rodrigue, whose affection for Carlos is checked by his sense that they are being watched; and ultimately, to the heartbreaking Act IV arias of Rodrigue, who begs for Carlos to take his hand, and who tries to crawl to his friend as Carlos desperately reaches for him from behind his cage.
The notion of a “lost paradise” haunts our characters: Élisabeth longs for her dear France, and her mother, and then, for the love that might have been with Carlos; Carlos mourns this stolen love, and the peace that eludes him, as well as the shadow of his grandfather who spent his final days in the cloister in reparation for a life of power-seeking, as Hamlet is haunted by the ghost of his father. Philippe, in this production especially, has a coherent reason for distancing himself from his son: jealousy. Carlos may be “passion’s slave,” but there is something in him that Philippe lacks: warmth, the capacity for friendship, and the ability to inspire loyalty in such a heart as that of Rodrigue. This is certainly in line, in many ways, with the Schiller original.
I will just give a brief mention, as well, on the father-son note, to the haunting image that is projected at the end of the auto-da-fe, reminiscent of the famous Goya painting, “Saturn Devouring His Son.”
Philippe longs for the particular friendship of Rodrigue, and for the authentic love of Élisabeth ~ yet, “elle ne m’aime pas.” Ildar Abdrazakov’s Philippe, a younger, dashing monarch, is also here a tormented alcoholic. Somehow, it works beautifully. Woolfe writes in his New York times review on the contrast between the French and Italian versions of this aria: “In Italian, it’s a public moment, even as a soliloquy. In French, it’s the murmur of a tortured soul.”
Ildar’s commanding tone and slick, intelligent presence make him a powerful adversary. His great Act IV aria, “Elle ne m’aime pas,” left me in tatters.
Eboli, such a crucial character, is often underemphasized, or is overshadowed by the other leads. Not so here. Elīna Garanča is a force to be reckoned with ~ the ultimate femme fatale as she fences her way into the lives of all the tormented leads, herself as solitary and broken as any.
“Je said votre pouvoir…vous ignorez le mien.” / “Your power is known to me…you do not yet know mine.”
~Eboli, Don Carlos III.i
Sonya Yoncheva’s Elisabeth is glamorous, self-possessed, and heartbroken. She sings the role with power, dignity, and restraint.
Tézier’s voice was the one that surprised me the most, as carrying with supreme beauty and power up into the opera house. His Act IV arias were devastatingly beautiful, and the lack of fulfillment of his wish to hold Carlos’ hand to the last, was a surprise. I had to stifle audible sobs at this point…
“Yes, sire, we two were brothers! Bound by nobler bands than nature ties. His whole life’s bright career was love…”
~Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos
Of course, it is needless to say that I was in tears from the first glorious sound from Jonas Kaufmann. But more than that, his baritonal tenor, his shadowy and emotionally-rich tone are perfect for this haunting version of Verdi’s opera. From the moment he sets foot on stage, he is entirely invested in the role. Of course, Don Carlos must be the emotional center in order for the rest to have its full impact; he fulfills this perfectly.
As a teenager, I was obsessed with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is no wonder, then, that Don Carlo(s) is my favorite opera, for it is certainly the Hamlet of opera. What has surprised me, after the impact of this production, is my reaction to the French-language version. One becomes so accustomed to the “sound” of the Italian, that its less-familiar predecessor sounds off-putting at the outset. I recall my struggles even to find a recording of the 5-act French version. There is the marvelous 1996 recording with Roberto Alagna and Thomas Hampson; there is the Domingo/Raimondi CD, conducted by Claudio Abbado, from the mid-’80s. And that is nearly all one can find. Now, having seen the live production, it will not leave my sleep-deprived and jet-lagged brain. It has given an entirely new dimension to the Don Carlos obsession.
With the Krzysztof Warlikowski Don Carlos, I believe we have one of the additions to the canon of all-time great opera productions–of any opera. The stars have aligned. How marvelous that it has, in a way, “recalled to life” Verdi’s poignant 1867 masterpiece.
The night before last, I returned to Oregon a sleepier, more jet-lagged, but completely blissful, girl.
The long-planned “Don Carlos Adventure” consisted of one night in London–including a visit to the Royal Opera House–followed by four nights in Paris. The Paris days/nights included four operas: Così fan tutte, The Merry Widow (with opera Hero and my first “Rodrigo,” Thomas Hampson), and two performances of the French version of Verdi’s Don Carlos, with the cast of a lifetime, on the 19th and 22nd.
The Don Carlos is the one that my dear friend (and “mio Carlo”) Viv Hannides and I had been remotely planning for over a year—ever since we heard rumors that Jonas Kaufmann would be singing his first French Carlos in Paris this season. I started saving, and by the time tickets went on sale, we were ready. My own struggles—financially and otherwise—with a major work transition this year, and needing to close my 13.5 year old business, made the projected trip an uncertainty for a long time. Even when I finally landed the job I was hoping for (in July of this year), I didn’t know whether I’d be allowed a whole week off when I’d only have been working for them for three months. Thankfully, everything got sorted out, my amazing boss approved the time off, and we all managed what had seemed a nearly impossible dream…
I will write a separate post about Don Carlos as a production. Here, I will just share a few photo highlights of the trip that speak louder than words of the joy we experienced together. The “Three Little Maids” (which had originated as a joke, as the three of us get so Gilbert-and-Sullivan goofy about our opera Heroes, and “everything is a source of fun”!) include myself (“Rodrigo”), Viv Hannides (“Carlo”), and Maura Devine, our dear friend from Ireland who joined us in London. In Paris, Maura, Viv, and I shared a beautiful fifth floor apartment on the Boulevard Beaumarchais, about a 5-7 minute walk from the Opera Bastille.
During the trip, we met up with other amazing opera fanatics…Ursula from Ireland, Ilse from Vienna, Rosemary from Australia, Christine and Paul from France, and another dear Christine from England, dear Pam from England… What a joy.
Here is a brief photo tour of the days ~ most of the photos were taken by mio Carlo, Viv:
Day 1, Oct 17th: London. Viv came to meet me at the airport at 7am, with a “Mio Rodrigo” sign waiting! (I nearly had brought one in my carry-on, saying “Looking for Mio Carlo!”) We drove around that day, listening to Jonas, and talking. Later, Maura met us ~ as did, unexpectedly, our very dear friend Andrew Pycock!!! This was entirely a surprise, and I will never forget the shock of seeing him sitting by the ballerina statue near Covent Garden. The four of us shared a meal together before the three ladies went to see Les Vêpres Siciliennes at ROH with Erwin Schrott, Michael Volle, and Bryan Hymel. An excellent production! I wept at the beauty of the sound–particularly of the chorus and orchestra, and also Erwin’s massively powerful and beautiful voice–which hit us so strongly up in the amphitheater. Everyone was fantastic. One of Viv’s friends, who had a Grand Tier box, invited Viv and I to occupy the two empty seats in his box after the interval! What a treat. 🙂 The “three little maids” spent the night in two sweet rooms above a pub, before catching the Eurostar to Paris the following morning. A note: meeting Erwin Schrott after the opera was a real honor ~ which I nearly missed, as I was so shy about it that Viv had to drag me over to meet him. After which I managed to clumsily drop the program (which he had just signed) right at his feet.
Day 2, Oct 18th: To Paris. The Merry Widow (Bastille). It is a truth universally acknowledged that Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But previous to being there, I think I had imagined in my own mind that the mystique of it was likely overstated…but no. It truly is an overwhelmingly beautiful city…I might easily have taken a gorgeous photo at every street corner…
That night, we saw the delightful operetta The Merry Widow at the same opera house–the Bastille–where we would see Don Carlos the following night. Thomas Hampson led the cast, and the costumes and set were an absolute delight. We managed to get into the lobby beyond the security checkpoint to be the first to welcome one of our great Opera Heroes, Thomas Hampson, when he came out the stage door. He was so incredibly kind and gracious, and was even delighted to hear that I was from his neck of the woods, and asked about my town. The other “little maids” teased me about the progress in one day, as I managed to ask Thomas for a hug at the end! He kindly gave it to me 🙂
Day 3, Oct 19th: Paris. Don Carlos – #1 (Bastille). I have simply been processing the nights spent seeing Don Carlos. Even after the first night, I immediately knew that it was the best night of my life. More on this anon…
Afterwards, the three leading men, Jonas, Ildar, and Ludovic, didn’t come out to the stage door exit, alas, as they went out another way to go to an after-party. (This was the night of filming Carlos, so it was a well-deserved celebration!) However, we had the honor of meeting the two leading ladies, who are even more beautiful in person, Sonya Yoncheva and Elīna Garanča!!!
Day 4, Oct 20th: Paris. Recovery day. It is a good thing that we didn’t schedule an opera on the Friday after the emotionally-wrought Thursday night. We had been up until the wee hours of the morning, watching the recorded version of the opera that we had just seen in person–I know, we are hopeless!!–and drinking tea, and something stronger, and just talking about the whole experience and processing it. Another “healthy lunch” at a patisserie! (Viv downed the rum straight…which was intended for her cake! 😀 )
This day ended up being a walking day ~ and we walked by the Palais de Justice, the Conciergerie, the Louvre, the Seine, the Eiffel Tower…it was magic. (However, as I mentioned on facebook, none of the glorious sights were half as beautiful as my first glimpse of Jonas the night before, from the distant back stall seats!) We had drinks and “crisps” (another inside joke which Maura and Viv will well understand…) at a local restaurant. As we didn’t start walking until around 2pm that day, we didn’t catch a taxi home until about 9pm, followed by some purchases for our late dinner, and more opera listening and chatting until the wee hours of the morning…
Day 5, Oct 21st: Paris. Così fan tutte (Palais Garnier). What an experience it was simply to be at the glorious Palais Garnier opera house. Previous to this, we’d done a self-guided tour. To then have the honor of being able to see a production here as well was pure magic. The was an abstract and modern-dress production which incorporated a lot of modern dance. Though not my ultimate Così experience in terms of production, it was beautiful nonetheless, and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Our own little “after party” consisted of drinks at “Les Associés,” a bistro across the street from Bastille’s stage door where we’d hung out previously to discuss the productions. I think the “Operaettes”–plus our new friend Howard–were there until at least 1:30 in the morning. This was followed, of course, by a “three little maids” session of more tea and talking by the time we arrived back to our apartment! The only down-side of today was that I realized later that I’d lost my opera glasses (a.k.a. “Jonas goggles”) in the taxi coming from Palais Garnier…hèlas!
Day 6, Oct 22nd: Paris. Don Carlos #2 (Bastille). After a large brunch with 17–yes, 17!–opera and Jonas fanatics at the “Cafe des Anges” near the Bastille, we walked together to our final performance.
There are no words for the beauty of this production…yet, I will try to write about it. (More anon.)
Previous to the performance, however, Viv and Maura gave me a very beautiful gift: a new pair of “Jonas goggles”! After the performance, all of our makeup cried away, we dashed to the stage door, and were soon crushed in the adoring crowd. (Alas, the security guard kept kicking us out from our spot inside the barrier and made us get behind the security barrier like everyone else! 🙂 ) Nonetheless, in spite of the crush, it was such an honor to meet the three Opera Heroes who made us weep and sent us into ecstasies during the performance. Ildar even posted a video of the crush of the crowd at this performance. You can barely see the top of my head as the camera passes by, but there are clear shots of Viv, Maura, and Ilse!!
We had one final beautiful surprise before Viv and I had to dash back to grab our luggage from our friend’s hotel room before catching the last Eurostar back to London that night. My flight was to be the next morning from Gatwick, so the poignant Act IV arias of Rodrigue–where he sings that his “supreme day has come,” and that he and Carlos must say “farewell”–had Viv and I in a tidal wave of tears.
I will start by saying that I adore Shakespeare’s Othello, and I’m far more familiar with the play than with Verdi and Boito’s opera. (So, you’ll see various “Othello” versus “Otello” spellings depending on which I’m referring to.) But knowing just enough of this opera to feel both its intensity and its difficulty, I was in as much anticipation as any to hear and see the interpretation of Jonas Kaufmann in what has been referred to as “the Mt. Everest of tenor roles.” Combined with this, the ROH’s current Otello is a new production by Keith Warner, and conducted by Antonio Pappano. It live-streamed to many cinemas on June 28th, and will be shown at various dates in the months following, depending on one’s location.
Well, I did have an opportunity to see it…and adored it.
In my usual fashion, however—more art with less matter?–I won’t even try to be overly succinct.
Brief background: Verdi, Boito, and Shakespeare
In many ways, it sounds as though Verdi’s Otello—considered one of his great works along with Don Carlo and Falstaff—is the result of a strained bromance. I read a fascinating article (linked here) about the extremely fruitful and long collaboration between Verdi and the librettist Arrigo Boito, who apparently even brought Verdi out of retirement. Boito wrote up his Otello libretto without any hope of its being used nor paid for, but solely as a passion project, “to give V[erdi] proof that I am truly far more devoted to him than he believes.” It premiered at La Scala in 1887.
His source, Shakespeare’s Othello, was first performed in 1604, and his own source was one tale from among a collection of Italian tales in the Hecatommithi which were popularized in 1565—and we all know the story, more or less: the noble “Moor of Venice,” married to a Venetian woman, is targeted for destruction by the devilish Iago.
Iago is one of the great villains, in part because he seems to delight in evil for its own sake. Not just pot-stirring, mischief-making like a type of Loki figure, but truly delighting in other people’s suffering and his own power to make them suffer. Some of his injunctions to Roderigo even about minor characters—i.e., “poison his delight,” “plague him with flies”–are as seemingly purposeless as they are cruel. And scarily enough, particularly in Shakespeare’s play, Iago, oozing charisma, draws the audience right along in his machinations. We almost become guilty co-conspirators.
Bringing it back to Verdi, it is no wonder that he initially intended to call the opera Iago.
The eternal question as to Iago’s motive is: Why? “Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil/Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?” (Othello, V.ii.).
Why? To quote the wrong play, “that is the question.” The ten-million-dollar question. Is it simply jealousy of Othello, or racial prejudice? Is it a kind of love-lust of Othello, and jealousy of Desdemona? Jealous of Cassio for usurping his place? Jealous of both of them, for being ranked above him? Or simply jealous of anyone who has any measure of success, enjoyment, or contentment with their own life? We know what Richard III wants. What Claudius wants. What Lady Macbeth wants. But what the hell (yes, definitely hell) does Iago really want? His motive is the consummate puzzle. Coleridge’s note on Iago in his own copy of Shakespeare has become famous: “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity.” Not that he is without motive, but his motive is something utterly mysterious and cruel: it is “for my peculiar end” (Othello, I.i).
Iago’s answer to Othello’s question, and his last line in the play, is equally enigmatic: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know./From this time forth I never will speak word” (Othello, V.ii.).
Whatever the motive, what is clear is that Iago is the consummate manipulator, and an actor through and through. (Some reviewers of the ROH Otello have referred to Vratonga’s Iago as “puppet-master,” which is excellent.) “For when my outward action doth demonstrate/The native act and figure of my heart/In compliment extern, ‘tis not long after/But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/For daws to peck at. I am not what I am” (Othello, I.i). He knows how to play on the perceived “weakness” or characteristic tendency of each person, and use it—less to his own advantage, than to the other’s disadvantage. Desdemona’s extreme trust and innocence is used against her; as is Cassio’s tendency to lose his head in anger when drunk; Roderigo’s lust and gullibility; Othello’s paranoid anger—or, more in the traditional context than in this particular production, his own insecurity about his status as “outsider.”
For the noble “Moor of Venice” is, in some way, an outsider, who has gained great popularity and status through his heroism. Whoever plays Othello/Otello has to make this nobility, the bravery, utterly convincing, for a crucial element of the tragedy to be felt.
Thankfully, for Otello the opera, now that we are beyond the embarrassing “blackface” interpretations of yesteryear, we can really explore infinite varieties (thanks again, Will, for your amazing coinages) of motive—either related to Iago’s villainy, or to Othello’s tendency to both suspect and react in the extreme. Motives, perhaps, related to the “green-eyed monster” in both.
If there is one potential “problem” in the pacing of the opera, it is perhaps that there is less setup, and hence, less potential payoff. After all, in the play, Iago is planting seeds of doubt, courting the audience and everyone else, and planning his knavery for a full two acts before he plants the idea of Desdemona’s infidelity into Othello’s mind. And yet, in spite of such setup, there is nothing at all extraneous in the Shakespeare play—no digressions nor subplots that don’t relate directly to the main thrust of the action. It’s tight as a drum. In the play, Othello doesn’t dismiss Cassio until the end of Act II, and Iago doesn’t first suggest (to Othello) the idea of Cassio’s interest in Desdemona until Act III, Scene 3—quite literally right smack in the middle of the play! In the opera, both events happen at the beginning, with very little prologue. This was brought up wonderfully by my friend Viv in her review, linked here.
So, the music must make us familiar with the characters. And the performers must convey the poignancy of their relationships, and Iago his villainy, with little time to spare. In other words, the music and performance must make up for the lack in length and setup. This is yet another challenge—especially for the Otello—to any who would tackle such demanding roles.
Jonas, who has always had an unusually strong acting ability, and who comes across as
truly interiorizing his every performance and thinking through it rather than bluffing it, emanates a natural leadership and inherent goodness. Yet, it is an essential goodness which has a component of deep emotional and psychological instability. The same capacity for swift judgment, which must have made him a ruthless general, has also made him rash. His dark sound is uncannily suited to this role, and he had me in tears from his “già della notte densa.” His first stirrings of paranoia—and even madness—were utterly convincing. His intensity, his capacity for subtlety and intelligence verging on hypersensitive madness was beautifully done, winding up so tightly until his final unhinging is dramatic and frightening. (And I confess, his dark voice has had me on a “Jonas high” ever since…) He is revelatory. Here is a clip from an earlier recording of “Niun mi tema.”
What can I say of Antonio Pappano? His lush, dramatic score was yet another character altogether…the opening storm scene utterly thrilling, and everything throughout the opera so fulfilling in this regard as to make one forget what an art it takes to forget the artists who helps make it possible: the conductor and orchestra.
Maria Agresta is a very winning Desdemona, who captures well the innocent guilelessness of the character, although I have little to compare her with, as relates to other opera performances.
Marco Vratonga is a juicy Iago. He doesn’t have the most beautiful baritone sound, but his gruff energy and sheer delight in malice goes a long way, and personally, I thoroughly loved his performance. In the play, one has more time to take delight in Iago’s extreme two-facedness—the false brotherly love for Othello, and what appears to be genuine concern for Desdemona, Cassio, and Roderigo. Then, he turns on a dime to face the audience and say, “How am I then a villain?”–and did I just see a wink?—and we are, guiltily, captivated. Or, perhaps…ensnared. In the opera, and in Vratonga’s interpretation, it is hard to see the “honest Iago,” as the villain face is so apparent…but it is delightfully devilish notwithstanding.
A chiaroscuro production: turning “virtue into pitch”
Speaking of the “villain face,” this brings me to the element that I wanted to give a little more focus to, and one which has gotten mixed reactions: the new set design and production by Keith Warner. Personally, I loved both, and found the use of light and dark extremely powerful and effective. The costumes had a certain magical realism; they whispered of the time in which the play was written, and yet belonged to no particular time nor place.
Perhaps a number of opera-goers have become a bit tired of the minimalist set design. I will admit to my bias, as I’ve always loved it—but only if well utilized, and if it serves what should be an obvious purpose: to draw attention to the music, the words, the characters. I will never forget a certain live theatre production I saw as a teenager, of Richard III, with all the actors dressed in the same black outfit—often, because the company was small, with one person playing multiple roles—and they utilized just one distinctive piece of clothing (a hat, scarf, etc) to distinguish each character. They would take up or doff each clothing item as needed. But the sheer energy and acting talent brought our imaginations to life, and compelled the listener to hear Shakespeare’s words like the music that they are.
Now, I too have become a little tired of “drab” productions, which sometimes overlap with “minimalist.” The recent Vienna Don Carlo was, I thought, somewhat of this variety. (Except for Philip II’s, ahem, gorgeous costume… 😉 ) It had all the rather spartan, blue-grey dullness that is a bit lacking in ingenuity. Okay, frankly, I think it’s a bit lazy.
This production, however, utilized a stark black/white/red design to perfect effect: it was the chiaroscuro of the soul.
It begins in utter blackness. Iago then appears in spotlight, holding a comedy and tragedy mask: the comedy (a white mask) in his left hand—and for the audience, it is the one on the right—and a black tragedy mask in his right hand, and our left. After looking at them, he tosses the comedy mask to the ground with a devilish laugh, looking at the audience.
This immediately connects to what I discussed above: the possibility of so many other themes and motives than solely race, or rank-jealousy; all are intertwined with one another, with the over-arching tendency to destroy and bring the “other” down. To destroy happiness in the “other.” To destroy. Period. It brings up a possible further motive for our ever-elusive Iago: he is out for the soul. As in the play, he is out to “turn [Desdemona’s] virtue into pitch,/And out of her own goodness make the net/That shall enmesh them all” (Othello, II.iii). In this production, one has the feeling that Iago wants not only to turn the appearance of virtue into pitch (again, the light/dark theme), but to turn their own souls against themselves and their better nature. Perhaps, to damn themselves, using their own weakness to their disadvantage.
In this way, we might connect it to Iago’s chilling “Credo” aria: what he’s actually battling is a “cruel God,” rather than Otello, Cassio, or Desdemona. An effective way to, essentially, give the finger. It is odd, how in Verdi’s and Boito’s interpretation, Iago seems to buy into an odd sort of predestination: we are all “slime”; “I believe the just man to be a mocking actor in face and heart” (“Credo che il giusto e un istrion beffardo e nel viso e nel cuor”); that he himself does what he does by “destiny’s decree.” (Here, I would advise the opera-Iago to listen to another epic villain, Edmund in King Lear, I.ii: “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,/When we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit/Of our own behaviour,–we make guilty of our/Disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as/If we were villains by necessity; fools by/Heavenly compulsion…”) Or, perhaps, Iago sees himself as destined to be the shadow that opposes the light. Hell’s compulsion, if you will. Or, “divinity of hell” (Othello, II.iii).
The production brings out this soul-battle with haunting power. From the general “darkness” of the set, to Otello seeing himself in Act II, masked, in a mirror, right after he is nearly ready to kill Iago for planting this seed of doubt in his mind. Later, before the final scene, as Otello descends into madness, Iago proclaims “victory” and the joy of being able to crush this “lion of Venice” under his feet…then proceeding to cover Otello’s mad-vacant face with the black mask of tragedy. Overall, I doubt that it is only victory over Otello he wants. After all…why? I think Iago has bigger fish to fry.
For a blog with “Don Carlo” in the title, I’ve written surprisingly little as yet on this, my favorite, opera. (Truthfully, I haven’t written as often as I’d like to in general.) Perhaps it is that trepidation that one has approaching a beloved subject…how to express thoughts in words that do it any justice? In time, I hope to explore this opera here in more depth, as I continue to learn.
Today, however, it has been a year since the opera obsession started; it feels like a good time to take a pause. This blog has been about the “opera journey”–more the opera than the “journey”– from a beginner’s perspective…not because my journey has any significance, but just because it is too joyful not to share. But this post, more personal, relates to what will be a huge milestone and joy for me in the coming year…thanks in great part to “mio Carlo,” Viv.
Why Carlo? (How shall I count the ways?) Phenomenal characters, complex relationships (talk about dysfunctional family!), glorious music, chilling and captivating political and religious themes…it has it all. It’s the Hamlet of opera, in combination with some of the intrigue of the history plays. But more than that, Don Carlo has, to me, the most moving relationship in any opera: the brotherly, self-sacrificial love between Don Carlo and his friend Rodrigo, the Marquis di Posa, who is caught between his affection for Carlo and his concern for the suffering of the people of Flanders under the heavy hand of Carlo’s father, King Philip II of Spain, and the Inquisition. To stretch the Hamlet connection, the Carlo/Rodrigo friendship has a bit of a Hamlet/Horatio dynamic–albeit with a stronger, more proactive “Horatio.” One, Carlo, is “passion’s slave,” haunted by a disastrous personal crisis in the midst of political ones–the other, Rodrigo, a staunchly loyal friend who sees the potential in him.
I’ve always had a soft spot for stories about male friendship. (I hesitated before seeing a version of the opera, after hearing the friendship duet on youtube–love at first listen–because I feared that Rodrigo would turn against his Carlo in the end, or that it’d end up being more rivalry than friendship.) But, not to spoil it, Verdi not only pays off the incomparably beautiful duet, a glorious tribute to friendship, but does so in a big way. I hope you will experience a version of this opera if you haven’t already…I eventually get around to writing a bit on those I’ve seen and heard.
My friend Viv (below) has often tried to guess which opera-relationships would likely be a success, if not hampered by the death and villainy that goes with the opera territory. (Would Mimi and Rodolfo honestly make it “in real life”? Tosca and Mario? Calaf and Turandot? It does make one pause…) I can only say, without a doubt, that Carlo and Rodrigo would make it. 😉 That’s the difference in this opera, an opera where the love serves the ideal, and the ideal the love; where friendship is deeper than the (sometimes) shallow ebb and flow of opera romance, where love is truly stronger than death and disappointment. It’s the bond of brothers.
Not unlike this friendship, the community of those who love opera is also close-knit. Opera friends are immensely enthusiastic and warm in sharing their joy, recommendations, practical help and advice…even sending/exchanging CDs or DVDs that they love or want to pass along. (One of mine just went out in the post to a friend the other day, and hers to me before that.) Listening to opera together, sharing knowledge and thought and insight. Opera buddies make life more and more beautiful all the time. My parents are hooked, and have not only tolerated but supported their daughter’s mad hobby, and will even listen to Wagner with me…a beau geste indeed. 😉 We’re all Carlos and Rodrigos to one another.
Around the time of my first Don Carlo, my long-distance friend Viv Hannides (fellow Kaufmanniac and Opera Enabler Extraordinaire, who allowed me to mention her name and snag a photo of hers–on the left–for this post, without knowing why) told me that there were rumors of a production of the French-language version—Don Carlos, as it is typically called in that version—to be performed at the Opéra National de Paris (Bastille) for the 2017-18 season, with Jonas in the title role. This would be historic on several levels: the stellar cast (more on that below) and the novelty of its being the full, 5-act French version. (They will apparently be doing the 5-act Italian version the following season.) Viv, who has a Paris Opera subscription, offered to help me get tickets, even back when we had just started to connect, if I wished to try for it when the time came.
Well, I knew I would have to try. It would perhaps be my first, or even only, chance to see/hear our tenor in person. (And who knows what can happen in a year’s time?) Sure, Jonas will doubtless be at the Met again soon enough–perhaps even next season, as there are rumors of a Tosca with his Cavaradossi–and what a dream that would be! We’ll soon find out for certain. But…this is Don Carlos! And, so my thinking went, it would be—from the time I first heard the rumors—a year and a half to two years away, depending on what point in the season it was performed. I had a bit of time to save, and plan. (Well, how time does fly…)
And what can I say of dear Viv? If only I could count the number of times generous, beautiful, hilarious Viv has made me laugh, and cheered me up with delightful, outrageously-altered pictures of my opera heroes (mostly Jonas and René Pape). And I don’t know at what point Viv became nicknamed “mio Carlo” by me—someone pointed out that we will have to start saying “mon
Carlos,” in keeping with the French version—and I her “Rodrigo,” but so it is. I believe I did mention a number of times wanting “to be Rodrigo when I grow up,” after encountering Thomas Hampson’s portrayal of the opera hero in the Salzburg production. (Really, though, she has been more the Rodrigo than I, the one to go above and beyond constantly…and has made for this distant “fanciulla del West” feel less distant from the hub of European opera than she really is.)
Most recently, she has redoubled my joy at the return of Jonas–in the Paris Lohengrin–after his months of recovery from the vocal injury. Viv was there the first night, January 18th, and stayed hours after to wait for him to come out after the show, keeping me posted as she waited.
Little did I know that a large part of her intent was to have our hero sign something for his long-distance fan who has not been able to see him in person yet. I won’t try to describe the emotion here. (My poor mom, who happened to be around at the time, had to put up with constant, weepy interruptions…) Not only to see my name in Jonas’ hand, but, even more, touched that “mio Carlo” would have even thought to take the time out of those few, precious moments—really, how often are we in close proximity to Jonas Kaufmann?–to think of her Rodrigo, so far away.
To put the icing on the cake, “our” Rodrigo, Thomas Hampson, is in a production of The Merry Widow at the same venue, only the night before! Tickets bought, and there’s no way we can’t get to Paris now. (I’m afraid, once there, it will not be possible to tear me away…)
Of course, getting the tickets are only step one, but we’ve done it. Paris, October 2017, here we come! (Somehow! Extra shifts at work, a few extra sewing orders, a little less sleep…for Carlos? For Thomas, Jonas, Ildar, Ludovic, Elina? Absolutely. Sleep is overrated anyway! :)) Again, Viv saved the day, spending hours navigating internet delays the moment ticket sales went up for Carlos. Truly, another huge gift…I don’t know how it could have been done otherwise.
Just…please God, keep every one of this beautiful cast in good health, for their sakes mostly…and ours too. Anyway, whatever happens, we’ll be able to say:
It is a dream-made-reality. Thanks, all my dear opera buddies and family…thanks for sharing the joy and knowledge constantly. “Vivremo insiem!”
And thank you so much, mio Carlo!
Dio, che nell’alma infondere Amor volesti e speme Desio nel cor accendere Tu dêi di libertà; Giuriamo insiem di vivere E di morire insieme; In terra, in ciel congiungere Ci può la tua bontà.
God, who has brought us together,
Fire our hearts with flames of glory,
Fire that is noble and pure,
Fire of love that will set men free!
God, grant that this love may fire us,
May freedom call and inspire us!
Accept the vow that we swear!
We shall die united in love!
(Translation by Andrew Porter, for the English National Opera’s guide, Don Carlos/Don Carlo, 1992.)
One of the first opera DVDs my family and I bought after the opera obsession started was the 2013 Vienna production of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, with Jonas Kaufmann and Nina Stemme. (Perhaps because it was one of the less pricey among other Jonas DVDs, and also because Nina was in it too.) None of us had any familiarity with the opera. After all, we, like many, when thinking of Puccini, thought of Turandot, La Bohème, and Madama Butterfly. Perhaps Manon Lescaut. La Fanciulla del West seems to be ranked somewhere in the “lesser works,” if we were to judge by what strikes this newbie as its relative neglect. Anyhow, this will be another “thematic” post, on an opera that grows on me daily…and anyone reading this has any recommendations for recordings that are available, or written works about this opera, I’d be very grateful!
(Note: spoilers ahead. Also note: the translations I use below–aside from my own parenthetical notes, as well as the “ch’ella mi creda libero”–are those of Bill Parker in the libretto for the CD recording of the 1956 La Scala production with Corelli, Gobbi, and Frazzoni, copyright 2007 by Allegro Corp.)
The story of La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the West, based on the stage play The Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco) is set in 1849-1850 “Gold Rush” California, in a mining camp, opening in the Polka Saloon where Minnie—idolized by all of the miners and sought after most avidly by the Sheriff of the town, Jack Rance—works, as well as has her little “academy” for the miners, reading to them and teaching them about Scripture (though she feels her own education has been sadly neglected). Ashby, a Wells Fargo agent, enters the scene, having tracked the bandit Ramerrez and his thieving gang for the past three months, and having a lead from Ramerrez’ supposed lover, Nina Micheltorena, that Ramerrez is nearby. Meanwhile, a stranger—whom Minnie has met once before—enters the saloon under the name of “Johnson,” and love begins to blossom between Minnie—who has as yet managed to escape being so much as kissed, in spite of growing up amongst men who all adore her—and the stranger. In Act II, Johnson visits Minnie at her home up in the mountains. (Again, the words “lontano”–distant, far away—are used in relation to Minnie’s dwelling.) Johnson “steals” her first kiss—but shortly after, Rance and his men, having followed the trail to her house, question Minnie about Johnson’s whereabouts—while he remains hidden—and, before they leave, reveal to her that the one she knows of as “Johnson” is actually the bandit Ramerrez. She feels betrayed and sends Johnson out into the snowy night; Johnson becomes wounded, and only eludes capture when Rance returns to Minnie’s home by losing to a game of poker which Minnie has proposed (and cheated on—an echo and contrast to the original “justice” shown the cheater at cards in Act I): if he wins, Rance can take both her, and Johnson; if Rance loses, he has to let Johnson go—who will then belong to Minnie. Act III sees the bandit ready to hang; he is then again saved—in more ways than one—by Minnie. They fulfill the dream that has been a constant throughout the ups and downs of their relationship: to go away, to a far distant land (“lontano”).
“La Fanciulla” as parable; a “far away” sensibility
In my first encounter, I was often moved, and particularly in moments such as the Act III aria, “Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano”–“Let her believe that I’m free and far away,”–which has become my favorite Puccini aria. But except for such moments and the beauty of the performances of the two leads in the Vienna production–no one breaks the heart like Jonas and Nina, and in my last viewing of it I was sobbing in Act I–it wasn’t entirely love at first encounter with the opera itself. I no doubt smiled, perhaps even laughed, at first hearing the stereotyped names, and the “Americanisms,” from the “Hello, hello!” chorus in the opening, to “Whiskey per tutti!” (It’s a stereotype, perhaps, that Italians are in love with Western Americana, but I’m sure there’s something to it, as film Westerns à la Sergio Leone have been referred to as “spaghetti Westerns.” Though, I daresay, few are in love with anything American at this moment–okay, political dig over for this post.) But, somehow, as we get further into the opera, we’re swept away, not unlike the miners in the story hearing the distant ballad of Jack Wallace, pining for their own homeland and their own families; there is in us too a kind of nostalgia for a lost time, or sensibility.
It is a sensibility that is distant, far away (“lontano”), like the memories of home, or childhood, or, perhaps, the hope of redemption.
Such sensibilities are familiar to me not only from my lifelong love of Dickens, but—more applicable here—to a time, years back, when I was delving into reading Victorian and Edwardian stage melodramas, replete with sentiment, outrageous plots, and “unlikely” lead characters. In Fanciulla, which was based on the stage play by David Belasco, The Girl of the Golden West, we have a bandit-with-a-heart-of-gold (Dick Johnson, aka Ramerrez), and a rougher Little Dorrit-type in Minnie, who seems somehow as miraculously pure and unaffected by her somewhat unsavory surroundings—not only that, but making the most of them and raising those around her—as the quieter Dickensian heroine.
Certain “grand,” sentimental, or sacrificial themes that were popular in stage melodrama, as well as the type of character who, like Minnie, is innocent and pure in the midst of rough surroundings, went somewhat out of fashion post-World War I, when much of the “romance” of self-sacrifice had been marred by the brutality and horror of war. My favorite Dickens novel, ever popular but not necessarily considered critically on the level of Bleak House or Great Expectations, is A Tale of Two Cities, and various adaptations of it, including Sir John Martin-Harvey’s The Only Way (he played Carton on and off the stage for nearly 40 years) were popular around the turn of the century…less so two decades later. The world had fallen into a different mood. Much like A Tale in one respect, La Fanciulla might be taken more as a “parable”–or rather, a parable of a parable–set against a dramatic historical backdrop, than as anything like realistic historical fiction. If A Tale might be said to be a parable of the 11th hour worker or the prodigal son, illustrated by John 11:25 as referenced in the novel, Fanciulla might well reflect the parable of the lost sheep, or the message in Psalm 51 that Minnie reads to the miners in Act I (more below). We might say, too, that Rance is a kind of representation of “justice” (though we know there are personal motives in his hatred of Johnson as well) in contrast to the “mercy” of Minnie, who, like God himself, loves the sinner, the lost. The Act II finale card game between Minnie and Rance—and yes, in what other opera are we going to find that a game of poker decides the fate of the heroes?–is a kind of battle for this wounded (lost) soul, much the way, in Hugo’s Les Misérables, Valjean and Javert (Mercy vs. Justice) are battling over Fantine, the woman driven to heartbreaking prostitution and poverty, when Javert is ready to throw her in prison–regardless of the fate of Fantine’s daughter, much less her own health. (The “allegorical” aspect is much more pronounced in the novel than is usually portrayed on film.) These are all personal conjectures, and we can make out from the story any number of things…that’s the beauty of story.
So, whatever my relationship with Fanciulla was at the outset, this opera has grown on me over time, and attached itself to me inextricably. I am almost tempted to say it is my favorite Puccini overall—if we are looking at an opera as a whole, because it’s frankly impossible to beat Act I of Turandot, the Act I finale of Tosca, or innumerable other sequences and arias from “E lucevan le stelle” to “Nessun dorma”–nor do we have as compelling a villain as Scarpia.
But in Fanciulla, I am more and more struck by a special kind of consistency and unity in the themes and orchestration; the sound itself which is something entirely unique. (Except that many a film composer has stolen blindly from it since, in my opinion–having grown up watching movies, John Ford and Sergio Leone included.) I don’t know how to put my finger on it, but Puccini has managed to capture the “Western” sound as we now associate it with the Western film…and this, in an opera which premiered in 1910! (It premiered at the Metropolitan opera, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, with Enrico Caruso as Johnson.) I sometimes wonder: Did Puccini help invent what we “hear” when we recall “Western” film scores?
And not only an overall consistency of sound and motif, but Puccini has nailed the music-theme-echoing-the-subject’s-theme in some mysterious way which I’ll try to give a few examples of, as I heard—or felt—them, using names that I associate with each. (I may well need correction by those who are more experienced with this opera.) I’ll use this youtube version of the whole 2013 Vienna production–regretfully, there are no English subtitles in the YT version–as a point of reference for the time tags in my comments below:
1. The “lontano”/“far away, distant” theme (nostalgic, looking back)
Of course, the overture gives us an overview of some of the main themes. After that, what I call the “lontano theme” in the Jack Wallace ballad that is echoed again at certain key moments. There is something about the genre of the “Western” that calls out for this kind of nostalgia…first heard in the above video (from a distance) at 6:54.
I have also since learned that “lontano” is also a musical term, meaning “distant,” or “far away.”
2. Minnie’s theme/savior theme
Of course, “Minnie’s theme” is evident (heard in the above at about 18:13): she has one of the grand entrances in opera. It was, for me, one weakness of the Vienna production, that it didn’t make the most of her entrance, especially with a Minnie as stellar as Nina Stemme! The Met-on-Demand version from 1992, with Placido Domingo, Barbara Daniels, and a wonderfully slick and threatening Sherrill Milnes, does this better. (And I generally liked the set/production better in the 1992 version as well, though I far prefer the singing/acting/interpretation of the two leads of Stemme/Kaufmann over any I’ve yet seen or heard.) The production that really hits the nail on the head with Minnie’s entrance is the the La Scala production from 2016, recommended by Blake, can still be seen at this link—and is a great example of an entrance (and thematically does some truly wonderful and inventive things which highlight the nostalgia for the Western film in a very direct hommage…if you love classic cinema, and/or specifically classic Westerns, watch at least the first 5 minutes and you’ll be hooked…). You really want her entering in silhouette, with her gun, against a sunset background…
Minnie’s theme is again repeated as a kind of “hero” theme: again, in her timely entrance in Act III, to save Johnson/Ramerrez from the rope.
3. The redemption theme/Ramerrez theme
This is one that kills me, and has one of the best payoffs of any theme, ever. We first hear a hint of it (after the overture) around 23:55 as Minnie explains the meaning of Psalm 51 to the miners:
“Wash me and I shall be white as snow. Create in my breast a pure heart, and renew within me an elect spirit…”
(My note: enter “redemption theme” here:) That means, boys, there’s no sinner in the whole world to whom the way of redemption is not open…
The “lontano” theme comes back again here too.
The redemption theme comes back as Johnson’s initial goal—robbing the Polka saloon of their gold—begins to slip away through the influence of Minnie, and he finally declares his help: “No one would dare to touch the gold.”
But in each repetition, the redemption theme is not quite “resolved”; the theme drifts away before it can come to a satisfying conclusion—until, that is, one of the best payoffs in any opera: Johnson’s identity aria in Act II, where he tells his story and admits to being the bandit Ramerrez. (And again, in another way, at the very end of the opera–when all of these themes are woven together.) In this version, the whole “story” aria is from about 1:24:15-1:27:38, but the “redemption theme” comes in at the words about how he began to pray to God not to let her know his true identity: 1:26:44-1:27:38.
Just a word! I won’t defend myself: I’m a thief! I know, I know! But I wouldn’t have robbed you! I am Ramerrez; born a vagabond, “Thief” was my name from the day I came into the world. But I never knew it while my father was living. It’s been six months since my father died… The only wealth he left me, to care for my mother and brothers, was his paternal legacy: a gang of common thieves! I had to accept it. That was my destiny! But one day I met you. I dreamed of going far away with you, (my note: again, “lontano”), redeeming everything with a life of work and love.
(my note: enter “redemption theme…) My lips murmured a fervent prayer: Oh God! Let her never know of my shame! Alas! The dream was in vain! Now, I’m finished…
4. Another “lontano” theme (forward-looking, future-oriented)
One of my favorite themes, but which is never quite resolved in the way that I somehow wish it to be—but it is somehow achingly perfect—is a theme introduced in Act II, when, after again pointing out that Minnie’s home itself is “far away” from the world, and where one “can feel God’s presence”, she talks about her “academy,” and that she herself is the teacher. (See 1:08:38 in the above.) This theme comes in several times in this tender scene in Minnie’s home (particularly 1:14:00 to 1:15:14), climaxing in the moment when they sing together (1:14:23): “Dolce vivere e morir, e non lasciarci più”/“So sweet to live and die and never again to part”.
Afterthoughts: “Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano…”
The above themes are just a few of my favorites that I wanted to make special mention of. This may be the first of many discussions of La Fanciulla, as I’m about to read the Belasco stage play on which this opera was based, and perhaps eventually get around to his novelized version of it, free via Google books.
But I can’t leave off a first discussion of this opera without bringing in a sample of my favorite Puccini aria, “Ch’ella mi creda libero.” Here again, the word “lontano.” (I wonder how often that word is repeated in the libretto?) Johnson’s only request before death is that they allow Minnie to believe that he is “free and far away, on a new path of redemption”; the “lontano” that is a motif both forward and backward-looking in this opera, seems to signify a new life, freedom; a new path; redemption; a pilgrimage to a distant land. Something lost, something found. How ironic that so much of what we think of as the romantic “West” (more myth than tangible reality) is the notion of “going West” itself; towards the horizon. Here, in Fanciulla, they are already “West”; the distant land they are looking for is more the interior transformation than a geographical “West.”
This version (which may not be viewable in certain countries…in which case you can see a shortened, too-hastily cut-off version here), is one that I play over and over again, and although the “Ch’ella mi creda” doesn’t begin until halfway through, it is worth listening to from the beginning–“Risparmiate lo scherno”/”Spare me your sneers” etc, and especially the soaring notes just before “Ch’ella mi creda libero,” translated here:
Let her believe that I’m free and far away, upon a new path of redemption! She’ll wait for my return and the days will pass, and the days will pass, and I will not, no, I will not return… Minnie, you’re the only flower of my life, Minnie, who has loved me so much!–So much! Ah! You’re the only flower of my life!
Many of us want to express our warm love and support for Jonas Kaufmann during this time of his recovery–a recent article has highlighted this–and there are many ways to do this, especially via his Facebook page.
One sweet friend, Basia (Barbara Gawel), a great admirer of our tenor, proposed sending postcards–in her words, “with good wishes and thanks for his unique art”–suggesting perhaps cards featuring “plenty of roses”. It would be a delight to hear about all of the love and support coming in for him from all over the world. Beautiful idea, Basia!
Munich’s postal service might need to hire some extra help with the flood of letters coming in, but for those who love real, postal mail—and who doesn’t?–why not drop him a line via the address listed on the “contact” page of his site? (Also shown above.)
I tried to put my picture in the comments, but apparently it won’t do photos. So, here it is. Perhaps one of us can put a little photo collage together ~ it would be fun to hear of what parts of the world they’re coming from! But either way, the important thing is that they are sent. Write on, friends!
There are those moments in the life of every budding obsession when, by some miraculous means, our appreciation soars to new heights; so high, in fact, that we have no conception of ground level anymore, and couldn’t return there if we tried. At least, we couldn’t return there as though we had never experienced transcendence.
The second great moment (for me personally) happened also at 7:30, but in the evening, two and a half weeks later. One of the cinemas in Medford, the larger town a little north of us, screens some wonderful theatrical and opera productions, including the Met Live in HD operas. On February 23rd of this year they had a screening of Jonas Kaufmann’s An Evening With Puccini, from his concert at Milan’s La Scala. As any Kaufmanniac knows, this concert is a priceless treasure. For an opera newbie, who loved Turandot as a child but who knew little of Puccini’s repertoire in general, it was magic ~ and Jonas a magician casting a spell from which I have never recovered, and I know I’m not alone. With the brilliant Jochen Rieder conducting, it is a thing of beauty.
(Here, I must also tip my hat to my youngest brother, who had the misfortune of sitting next to an embarrassingly sobbing sister in the theater that night.)
Of course, besides the exquisite “Nessun Dorma” ~ and the likewise exquisitely endearing encore of it at the end, which I’ll not spoil for those who haven’t seen it ~ there were two pieces in particular, among the many that were new to me (and most of them were…newbie that I was/am!), which brought me metaphorically to my knees: a piece from an opera that I’d never seen (La Fanciulla del West) ~ more on this later ~ and one that was not a Puccini aria, but a piece by the Italian priest Licinio Refice, with lyrics by Emidio Mucci. It is called “Ombra di Nube” (1935). It would appear that our tenor is particularly fond of this piece, and works it into a number of his concerts.
Here is a YouTube recording of “Ombra di Nube,” sung at another concert (warning: the sound gets suddenly too loud at the applause at the end):
Ombra di Nube
The sky was an arc of dazzling blue;
a brilliant light shone down on my heart.
Shadow of a cloud, do not bring me darkness;
do not obscure the beauty of life for me.
Fly, cloud, fly far away from me;
let this strange torment of mine be swept away.
Bring back the light, bring back the blue!
Let me see the clear sky for all eternity!
Not only to listen to, but to watch Jonas sing this is to witness something transcendent; he is on another plane altogether. Every word is delicately, poignantly sung, as from one who has experienced the tormented plea, and fragile hope, firsthand. By some mysterious means, he brings us with him.
(It is no wonder that a number of us ~ myself included ~ have since asked that this piece be played at our funerals.)
The news, of course, must be disappointing for so many who had tickets to see our tenor in the near future. (I can only imagine, as one who prays to see and hear him in person at least once before I die.) That being said, how much must our tenor himself be wishing that this “strange torment of mine be swept away”!
My hope and prayer is that this is only the “shadow of a cloud”; once the cloud has passed by and our light returns ~ for Jonas’ extraordinary gift has indeed been a light in many lives ~ it will be all the brighter for our having experienced the shadow with him. Now, every time I hear him in a recording, it is with the greatest gratitude to have heard such beauty, though not yet in person, in my lifetime.
Thank you, Jonas, for sharing the gift of your great artistry, and your great heart. Rest, and be well. Take all the time that you need; for what you’ve already given us is beyond price.
Friends of opera! We have three exciting arrivals next week…
October 7th will be a day for Kaufmanniacs.
First of all, we have Jonas’ new CD coming out! Dolce Vita (available for pre-order now) is a 67-minute tribute to Italian music, including the 1911 Neapolitan beauty, “Core ‘ngrato” (“Ungrateful heart”) by Salvatore Cardillo. (Of course, most Kaufmanniacs have watched—and rewatched—him sing this piece on YouTube. A friend of mine expressed her ultimate dream: of Jonas singing this to her in person! Right there with you…
As if that weren’t enough, we also have the DVD (or BluRay) of the 2015 Royal Opera House production of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier starring our tenor in the title role coming out the same day. Featuring Eva-Maria Westbroek and the wonderful Serbian baritone Željko Lučić and conducted by Antonio Pappano, Chénier is one not to be missed, and one of the first recorded operas I saw with our tenor after first encountering him. (And no, surely that’s not a poster of Jonas as Chénier hanging on my bedroom wall…? Oops, guilty.) The opera was free on YouTube, sans subtitles, when I saw it, but it required having a libretto handy, and hence missing too many Jonas moments! I think I need to remedy this. And yes, the DVD or BluRay is also available for pre-order on Amazon.
Of course, Giordano, and Jonas, had me blubbering like a baby by the end, in true Romantic Revolutionary style. (Now, imagine if it had been an opera of A Tale of Two Cities with our tenor as a certain tragic hero who shall not be named…I might not be alive today to tell the tale. It would simply be too much.)