“That’s what I like about Shakespeare, the pictures.” ~Al Pacino, “Looking for Richard”
This blog post might as well have been titled “…And he can sing, too!” which happens to be another of the joking lines that are often used by my family in relation to the all-around marvel that is Jonas Kaufmann.
I finally caved and bought “the picture book,” as I was mentally titling it, having seen the price drop by about $20 U.S.D. recently from one vendor (which, alas, I am not sure is still selling it). But I should have bought it right away. It is written/photographed by Jonas’ friend, biographer, and media manager Thomas Voigt and my lovely friend Christine Cerletti, and it an absolute must for those of us suffering from the happy malady known as Kaufmannia, described in a post from 2016. And who among us couldn’t do with a little more light and beauty right now?
Jonas Kaufmann: Eine Bilderreise is a dual-language, heavily-weighted, and very attractive book, following our hero in pictures through the wealth of his many performances, from snapshots of his “early years,” including Idomeneo and Cosi fan tutte, through his work mostly categorized by composer or repertoire, from “Giuseppe Verdi” to “German Repertoire” to “Giacomo Puccini” to “Verismo,” to “Recitals,” “Concerts,” portraits of Jonas, and even a special little selection of Jonas’ own abstract photos. The introduction by the Director of the Munich Staatsoper, Nikolaus Bachler, as well as those by Voigt and Cerletti, express well the beauty and attractiveness that draw us to the “dark” tenor.
“What matters to him is presence instead of semblance, content instead of an empty shell. Not only do his heroes always emanate a sun-like magic, an inner fire and glow, but also dark presentiment and abysmal depths. Kaufmann does not merely belong to those who have been called, but is among the chosen…” ~Nikolaus Bachler, pg. 6
This is far more than your typical coffee-table book, perhaps because it brings into visual relief the wealth of this unique tenor’s incredibly rich and diverse work in a way both sensitive and insightful. Many of the featured photographs are essentially Christine’s own “screenshots,” some of which those of us in Jonas’ fan groups have enjoyed over the years. They capture moments of supreme beauty and emotion which recall us instantly to the performance. And none can so completely draw us into the emotional depth and interiority of a role as can Jonas.
Christine, in her delightful introduction, relates the way she first heard our tenor’s voice, as she was searching for an interpretation of Schubert’s Winterreise, and she’d frankly been trying to avoid the tenors. But his name kept coming up, and when she finally listened, it was transformative: “I would never have thought it possible that a tenor’s voice could electrify me that profoundly. I was completely taken with its baritonal, bronze, and sensual tone alone, let alone the singer’s eminent musicality and enormous expressiveness. This was not a narrator describing the figure of a wanderer in winter–this was the lonesome wanderer struggling with his fate.”
I think this beautifully sums up what makes Jonas’ voice and interpretation so unique: not only the dusky sound, but his approach to a role as if it had never been sung before. As if from within. This echoes Voigt’s insight into the words of Helmut Deutsch, who had said of Jonas that each time he comes to a role, even one which he has done many, many times before, “not the slightest routine made itself felt, each time it was all or nothing–and each time different,” his energy never abating. Jonas connects to the audience as if mind-to-mind, and heart-to-heart. Or, as Antonio Pappano has said of him, he is “the thinking-man’s tenor.” And he just happens to be a marvelous actor as well as singer and interpreter.
“Whenever you’re on stage, don’t act ‘as if’! This is about genuine feelings! I have learned this from the great stage director Giorgio Strehler, with ‘Cosi fan tutte,’ my very first opera production in Milan. He required absolute, unconditional commitment and passion from us; and this has literally burned itself into my mind.” ~Jonas Kaufmann, pg. 43
Thank you, Thomas Voigt and Christine Cerletti, for such a beautifully photographed and sensitively composed tribute to “our tenor,” and another ray of light in the midst of this ombra di nube.
I know I’m not alone in feeling something of a constant, low-grade “depression” (not to be clinical about it, but for lack of a more accurate word) during what has been a uniquely difficult year for the world.
Countless fires in my home state, Oregon (or is it “Mordoregon”?) ~ one of which started at the north end of my own town, Ashland, this past Tuesday, and caused devastation in its northward path to neighboring towns ~ and all over the West, and the Covid-19 shutdown, and ineffective leadership, and racial injustice…all feel like an oppressive shadow obscuring any brightness in the world. Now, we hardly need more brooding words about the state of the world; rather, we need hope, joy, kindness, good works for our neighbors, beauty, and art. Sometimes it has been all some of us can do to just live, and pray, and work; some of my own opera listening and watching has fallen by the wayside. But it is a sad loss, if that’s too long the case. We’ve lifted up the neglected “essential workers” during this time of pandemic, and it’s beyond wonderful. Now, I feel more than ever how truly essential also are our artists, actors, musicians, and those who bring beauty into the world. I don’t intend to focus on anything but music and opera in this blog, but only to take a brief pause, to remind myself, if nothing else, not to neglect the beauty that we live for.
Speaking of those who bring beauty into the world, one of my opera heroes, Ildar Abdrazakov, has tested positive for Covid-19, and I hope and pray for his quick and full recovery, and for all of his family.
I am so curious as to how, and whether, the Don Carlos from the Wiener Staatsoper, with Ildar and Jonas, will continue as scheduled, in the midst of social distancing. But if does, I’ll be there…virtually!
The latter, set on a platform above a beautiful Mediterranean vista, was so much fun, and particularly the duet from L’Elisir d’Amore, that I finally watched my first L’Elisir! I can’t believe I hadn’t seen one yet. It was a subtitled 1997 version from Lyon, with a very young Roberto Alagna ~ whose Nemorino was very reminiscent of a clumsy, adorable, hapless Charlie Chaplin ~ and Angela Gheorghiu. The whole cast did a lovely job, and the two leads were so delightful.
If anyone else has beautiful, inspiring, or just downright funny and delightful operas to recommend, I’d love to hear them! Meanwhile, here’s a virtual toast to art, opera, opera friendships, and laughter! And prayers for all of our beloved artists worldwide, and for our suffering world.
I couldn’t resist jotting some thoughts on my reaction to the recent and much-anticipated Royal Opera House production of La forza del destino, starring Jonas Kaufmann, Anna Netrebko, Ludovic Tézier, and Ferruccio Furlanetto, even though I’m not very familiar with this opera. When I first became infatuated with opera, I saw a recording of the Kaufmann/Harteros/Tézier version from Munich of several years ago, but that was the only complete version I’ve seen. I was intrigued, but a little confused by what seems a fairly simple story. Perhaps it was some directorial choices that made certain things unclear, whereas many who saw it were probably well familiar with the story from other versions and had no trouble following along.
In essence–SPOILER ALERT–the story begins in the home of the Marquis of Calatrava, who believes that his daughter Leonora has gotten over her infatuation with the foreigner, Don Alvaro (an Incan prince from the Americas). In reality, they’ve planned an elopement, and Don Alvaro shows up that very night, and overcomes the reluctance of Leonora to fulfill their plan. They are caught, however, by the Marquis, accompanied by the pursuing “destiny theme” in the music, and provoke a fight with Alvaro, who has tried to take the blame on himself. Alvaro, in trying to hand over his gun, accidentally shoots the Marquis—who, with his dying breath, curses his daughter. Both Leonora and Alvaro flee the same night, but not together; she believes he has escaped, perhaps gone back to his homeland. After overhearing her brother’s plan to find and kill his sister in order to avenge the family honor, Leonora begs Padre Guardiano to let her follow in the footsteps of another unhappy woman, and to commit herself to the life of a solitary anchoress in a cave near the friary. After some resistance, Guardiano agrees to support her. Meanwhile, after having sought Leonora for a year and now believing her dead, Alvaro joins the fight for Italy against the Germans. Rising in the ranks, he ends up—under another name—saving his foe, Don Carlo (who is also going by another name), and the two swear eternal brotherhood. Alvaro, having become mortally wounded, gives Carlo the key to a box that he keeps, revealing his identity, and asks Carlo to burn the contents. Carlo finds out the identity of Alvaro, and is eager that he should be healed–which is what happens–in order that he may kill him himself. Carlo reveals to Alvaro that Leonora is alive, but will die by his hand. After presumably both time and a game of cat-and-mouse searching have passed, Don Alvaro ends up committing his life to the friary in order to expiate the misdeeds of his past, and is much beloved by the populace. Finally, his whereabouts are discovered by Carlo, who provokes the dormant ire of the now-nonviolent Alvaro; they duel, ending up disturbing the peace of the nearby (dying) anchoress Leonora; Alvaro strikes a mortal blow at Carlo, and as the latter is dying Leonora and Alvaro recognize one another, and the dying Carlo, unrepentant still, kills his sister. During her final, peaceful passing, Alvaro finds in the situation and in her words assurance of his own redemption in spite of the brutal force of destiny.
In Charles Osborne’s book, The Complete Operas of Verdi, I was surprised to read that La forza, based on a play by Angel Saavedra and on a scene from Schiller, was first composed for a Russian audience and performed at St. Petersburg at the Imperial Theatre. The original ending was even more Russian, dark, and Dostoyevskian, coming directly from the play:
“Riva’s play ends, after the duel and the death of Leonora, with Alvaro’s suicide. He rushes to the cliff edge as the Father Superior and the monks appear on the scene. When the Father Superior calls him by his monastic name, Rafaele, he cries: ‘You can search for Father Raphael, you fool. I am a messenger from hell. I am the spirit of destruction….Hell, open your mouth and swallow me. Let the heavens collapse! Let mankind perish!’ And, with a final shout of ‘Extermination, Annihilation”, he flings himself over the cliff….The gentler ending as we know it today stems from the Milan revision of 1869” (Osborne 336).
Anna Netrebko’s low, melancholy soprano and the passionate but sadly tormented demeanor are a great fit for Leonora, and although Jonas is the only Don Alvaro I’ve seen, he fits the role beautifully with his winning charisma as well as his dark and dusky tenor voice and his phenomenal acting ability revealing the character’s guilt-ridden torment.
Ludovic Tézier is a brilliantly cold Don Carlo, whose rich baritone mingles so beautifully with Jonas in their scenes together; the two always have the most compelling chemistry. Theirs is the friendship that might-have-been; it is for me possibly the greatest tragedy in the story. The extent of Don Carlo’s need for revenge goes beyond any kind of bounds of honor; it becomes sheer passionate excess; but one sees, in the budding friendship before he realizes the identity of Alvaro, the potential that this character has. The gorgeous friendship duet, “Solenne in quest’ ora,” is breathtaking.
And Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Padre Guardiano is spot-on; the beauty of Furlanetto’s voice, so brilliantly preserved and rich, is always a sheer delight to listen to, and he plays the role with the appropriate complexity; he clearly admires Leonora but doesn’t know what to make of the whole situation. And, like a well-meaning but possibly quite misguided Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, allows her to persuade him to an extreme course of action. (His voice sometimes made me weepy just with the sheer beauty of it.)
I liked the simple staging and updated dress, whose time period was a little hard to pin down. The glimpse into Leonora’s childhood with an abusive brother, which we witness during the overture, makes an imaginative and helpful background for Carlo’s fanatical, Javert-like pursuit of his sister and her would-be lover. Thankfully, Christof Loy’s direction is neither overly-symbolic nor unnecessarily ambiguous; any interpretation that can be attached to it is something that one considers only in hindsight—at least, this was my experience—because the drama takes precedence. In Loy’s use of the background film projections of close-up, exaggerated reactions of the prinicpal characters, generally in slow-motion, I was reminded, as was my friend Viv whose review I would love to link here if I can find it on a public site, of the Warlikowski Don Carlos of Paris, 2017, though I don’t believe Loy’s was as creative and inspired as the latter overall. Another curious stage choice was that, whether in the Calatrava household or later in the friary, we seem to be in the same “setting”–a dining room of sorts—and I couldn’t help but wonder if the director wanted us to believe that Leonora was simply exchanging one kind of submission (that of a daughter to an overbearing father) for another (that of an anchoress to a religious father). I appreciated the “deeper logic” that the director was trying to get at in the staging, with the recurring room perhaps more reflective of Leonora’s consciousness and her tormented memories, than the real setting itself.
In terms of direction, the only thing I had a negative reaction to–because it took me “out” of the drama, as not entirely making sense except in terms of directorial imposition–was the scene where the friars are accepting their new “charge,” their new anchoress who will dwell in the cave, after Leonora has persuaded Padre Guardiano to allow her this chance. At a certain point, the mood of the scene changes from the somewhat daunting, somber and inspired piety of the action, to one where Leonora seems to have a last-minute change of mind, but the monks physically force her to stay and she ends up in a restraint position on the ground. Here again, I felt a little bit of the director’s imposition: the idea that she has merely exchanged one form of submission for another. To me, this undermines the strength of the love-sacrifice of the story, and the strength of Leonora’s character. After all, however misguided Padre Guardiano was in agreeing to it, it was her request and her resolve that won the day, and I think we need to respect that in the storyline, as it shows no little strength of character. We are dealing with people of a different time and different ideals, including those of the Romantic—often to the point of melodramatic—19th century stage here, and, in my opinion, the piece is more poignant if played straightforwardly and as though the characters are acting out of their authentic convictions, and not with our own 21st-century abhorrence for the extreme choices of cloistered, consecrated, or eremetic life, with the added submission to authority that is inherent in such a choice. So, while I see what the director was saying, it was, for me, a momentary misstep.
I do want to give a special mention to the fabulous supporting cast. In particular, for me, Alessandro Corbelli gave us some welcome comic relief with his wonderful Fra Melitone, and Robert Lloyd was both haunting and intimidating as the Marquis…such a key role and a key scene in the psychology of Leonora, and of her sad destiny. Veronica Simeoni did a fine job in the role of Preziosilla, though hers was overall, for me, not as strong a performance as the others. (This may be my own unfamiliarity with the opera and the character’s role in the drama, and having nothing to compare with.)
In terms of Pappano’s brilliant conducting and the beauty of the orchestration, nothing could be better. The thrilling final scenes, the Don Carlo/Alvaro duel, and the heartbreaking look on Jonas’ face which brought tears to my eyes—all made for a brilliant finale.
My next Forza, I think, will be the 1958 video recording with Corelli, Bastianini, Tebaldi, and Christoff…and very much looking forward to it!
But I also look forward to revisiting this one; I very recommend this production, which was a good vehicle for an excellent cast and orchestra of this strange and poignant opera.
I know it has been a long time since I have posted. The sadness after Dima’s death nearly a year ago, followed by a nearly relentlessly unpredictable and busy schedule at work, has made it difficult to finally piece together many different ideas and experiences I’ve been wanting to write about. Notes are scattered in many places, waiting to be utilized!
So this is, essentially, only a brief note about a wonderful four days in New York City ~ my first time ever ~ with, I hope, more details to follow. Merely dipping the toe back in the opera posting…and if you are facebook friends with me, this brief summary will be a repeat.
My mom Debra and I made our first ever pilgrimage to the Metropolitan Opera on the trip, starting out with Tosca with the stunning Sondra Radvanovsky, Željko Lučić, Patrick J. Carfizzi, and Joseph Calleja, and we were so delighted to be able to meet some of them after, with the aid of the indefatigable opera friend, Sophia Cerovsek. Tosca was a gorgeous production all around.
And of course the beautiful Fanciulla production which was captured and streamed live in HD yesterday…what can I say? Jonas, you broke my heart yet again…a perfect performance that I can’t wait to see again ~ with close-ups! ~ at the cinema encore this Wednesday night as I dash off from work. I was a wreck again in Acts I and III, moved mostly by the heartbreaking richness of his dark voice. Željko Lučić was a gorgeous Rance…so beautifully done. (I also can’t wait to see his close-ups because I adore watching his face.) Eva-Maria was absolutely fantastic, and the whole cast and production was strong all around…it was an unforgettable day.
But one of the most unforgettable things about this trip has been the opportunity to finally meet some of my dear, long-distance opera friends in person: Laura, Blake, Dash, Sophia, Peter, Joanna, and other friends from the lively Met Live In HD Fans group. It has been a true blessing, and is a large part of the huge joy that is opera obsession.
As I write on this final day in NYC, sleepy but happy, I am thinking with gratitude about all the wonderful friends near and far who share their joy of opera, and with huge gratitude to the artists who remind us why we work and live, and who bring such beauty into our lives.
It will be back to the usual work grind for me personally on Tuesday, but I have more determination than ever not to let work take over my life. Starting with Wednesday evening: nothing will induce me to stay late at work and miss the Fanciulla encore! 😁 Viva Puccini!! 🎶🎵👏👏💛💙💜💚💛 Bravi tutti!!!!!!!!!!!!
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.
The opera obsession is getting a little out of hand.
As life circumstances have been a hindrance to regular writing/blogging, I fear it may have appeared as though I’d fallen off Planet Opera. In reality, I’ve been listening to and watching a fair deal of recorded opera over the past months, but in a cobbled-together fashion, somewhat like a patchwork quilt—or perhaps like Frankenstein’s monster—rather than my usual method of falling down the rabbit hole with one particular opera or composer for a time. A little Baroque here, a little Puccini there; half an opera here, interrupted by half of a different opera the next night—oh, and there’s that Saturday radio broadcast I nearly forgot about—to finally return to finish the first on the next available night. YouTube operas here, a library CD there. A week off of opera here; only a day off of opera there.
Partly, this chaotic approach (“approach” making it sound more intentional a method than it is) has been due to an unpredictable work routine. This is soon to change, thankfully, for a steadier situation. This seamstress has–ahem–altered her 13.5 year old sewing business, and all the irregularly-scheduled side-jobs to fund it, in order to hereafter do volunteer sewing work only, taking on a more regular “day job” to make ends meet.
During this whole work/life transition, and in the midst of opera joys, my heart–and that of so many others–bleeds for Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s needful cancellations, due to his chemotherapy and imbalance issues resulting from his brain tumor. But he still continues to surprise us with his dedicated love of his art, as he did at the Met Gala in May.
One of the more beautiful aspects of the past month is the fulfillment–almost–of Jonas’ much-anticipated Otello debut at Covent Garden, which was live-streamed to some lucky cinemas on June 28th, but which won’t make it to any here out West (only two cinemas in Oregon are showing it) for another couple of weeks. The reviews have been, generally, jaw-dropping.
So, in the following couple of blog posts over the coming days, I’ll write—with as much brevity as possible, and not in any particular order at all—about a few of my opera viewings and listenings over the past months, with more in-depth commentary about only a couple of them.
Lovely Luca Pisaroni
In finding more operas with Luca Pisaroni–La Cenerentola, Don Giovanni, etc–I want to highlight the 2016 Salzburg Le Nozze di Figaro. If you can see it somehow, please do. You can see my little write-up at this link.
Eugene Onegin miscellany…
First of all, I finished the Met cinema season a little early, but with a bang. As I didn’t make it to Der Rosenkavalier, I ended on Eugene Onegin, with Peter Mattei, Anna Netrebko, and the glorious bass Štefan Kocán. I loved Mattei’s intelligent, jaded Eugene—one who clearly overthinks everything, to his own disadvantage—and his shimmery gold voice. Anna was marvelously dusky in the role of Tatiana. But it was, interestingly enough, Prince Gremin—who is often played as much older than Tatiana, but here in younger and virile form with Štefan Kocán’s portrayal—who stole the show, and won every heart with his Act III aria. (It was that aria which made the tears flow, I assure you. That love, folks, is the real deal. Oh, how he looks at Tatiana! I say: forget Eugene. Hands down.)
Side note to Eugene Onegin: I will also add as a side note that I not only fell in love with Prince Gremin in the Met 2017 cinema broadcast, but also with the conductor Robin Ticciati. I could have watched a complete second HD, just to see his every expression while conducting.