Ensnaring the Soul: Thoughts on ROH’s “Otello,” and its Demi-devil

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.

“That demi-devil…”

Marco Vratonga, Iago, ROH “Otello” 2017

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.).

Side note: My mom, Debra, and I–well, our entire family of Shakespeare nuts, in fact–have had many discussions on this subject over the years, and she has written about this subject–Iago’s “motive”–in fiction and nonfiction/reviews, one of which can be found at this link. She also references a favorite production of Othello, the play, which I highly recommend, with Willard White, Imogen Stubbs, and Sir Ian McKellen, though it seems to be more difficult to find now. (And if you want to really fall down the rabbit hole here, there is an excellent article about the experience of Sir Willard White–an opera singer–playing the role of Othello in the play.)

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.

ROH’s “Otello”

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

Jonas Kaufmann as Otello and Maria Agresta as Desdemona, ROH “Otello” 2017

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.

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“Mio Carlo”

(To Viv, opera buddy.)

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.

Rodrigo (Thomas Hampson) comforts his Carlo (Jonas Kaufmann). Don Carlo, Salzburg 2013.

About eleven months ago I saw my first recording of Verdi’s Don Carlo, the 2013 Salzburg production with Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros, and Thomas Hampson. The opera became my favorite quicker than you can say “bromance.”

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.

jonas-viv-selfie
Jonas Kaufmann and Viv Hannides, 18 Jan 2017. Our Jonas took this “selfie.”

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…)

jonas-and-rene-1
A gift from Viv, October 2016.

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

Another gift from Viv, New Years' Eve, 2016.
Another gift from Viv, New Years’ Eve, 2016.

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.

Knock me down with a feather...
Knock me down with a feather…

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.

Photo credit: from the Espace Lyrique facebook post of Oct 2016.
Photo credit: from the Espace Lyrique facebook post of Oct 2016.

Now, of course, the official announcement about the long-rumored production is out. It looks to be one for the ages, full of our “opera heroes.” The Bastille is indeed putting on the 5-act Don Carlos in French, with not only Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, but Ildar Abdrazakov as Philippe II, Ludovic Tézier as Rodrigue, Sonya Yoncheva as Élisabeth de Valois, and Elīna Garanča as Eboli. (I still can’t quite believe it…)

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.)

“Libero e Lontano”: Thoughts on Nostalgia and Redemption in “La Fanciulla del West”

Johnson (Jonas Kaufmann) being won over by Minnie (Nina Stemme)
Johnson (Jonas Kaufmann) being won over by Minnie (Nina Stemme)

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.)

A Synopsis…

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?

Themes/Motifs

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

A hero's entrance: Barbara Daniels as Minnie, Metropolitan Opera, 1992
A hero’s entrance: Barbara Daniels as Minnie, Metropolitan Opera, 1992

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.

A tortured Johnson, aka Ramerrez (Jonas Kaufmann, Vienna, 2013)
A tortured Johnson, aka Ramerrez (Jonas Kaufmann, Vienna, 2013)

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!

Send words of love and support to our tenor!

picsart_10-02-11-18-24Many 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!

We're here for you, Jonas!
We’re here for you, Jonas!

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.)

If you prefer email, there is also an address listed for his private secretariat: secretariat@jonaskaufmann.com

One from the whole family, and one from me
One from the whole family, and one from me

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!

Shadow of a cloud: a prayer for Jonas

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.

In my initial post, I wrote of the first time I had heard the voice of our tenor (yes, 7:30am on February 5, but who’s keeping track?) via a YouTube recording of the Pearl Fishers duet. It was ~ in the words of C.S. Lewis describing the writing of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien ~ “like lightning from a clear sky”. After this, I began to watch opera again, and as if for the first time; and of course, I listened innumerable times to that bromance beauty with Jonas and Dmitri.

Hey, can't they even spell his name right??
Hey, can’t they even spell his name right??

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.)

With Jonas’ recent announcement of another cancellation, this time of his Paris performances in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, he reveals that he has sensed for some time that something has been wrong with his voice. Sure enough, the side effect of a medication has indeed done some damage, which will require rest and time off to heal.

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.

Meanwhile, I silently pray:

Bring back the light!

Do not obscure the beauty of life for me.”

Save the Dates: October 7th/8th, 2016!

Friends of opera! We have three exciting arrivals next week…

October 7th will be a day for Kaufmanniacs.

No "ungrateful hearts" about this one!
No “ungrateful hearts” about this one!

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…

Sigh.

Jonas + the French Revolution = perfection!
Jonas + the French Revolution = perfection!

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.)

Then, Saturday October 8th is the start of our new season of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD cinema showings, beginning with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Simon Rattle and starring Nina Stemme as Isolde, Stuart Skelton as Tristan, and the always glorious René Pape as King Marke. I am still new to Wagner, so this should be an interesting experience. A long Wagner on a Saturday morning sounds a bit intense, I admit…

Enjoy!

Defining the happy malady known as “Kaufmannia”

Fellow devotees of our tenor might have experienced a certain exhilaration this past Saturday, April 16th, if they were able to witness the live stream of Tosca from the Vienna Staatsoper, 7:30pm Vienna time. (10:30am Oregon time!) Though of course a different production from the brilliant 2011 production of the Royal Opera House that I wrote of previously, the Vienna production had the same three phenomenal artists in the lead roles: Bryn Terfel as Scarpia, Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi, and Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca.

What a privilege, from so many miles away, to weep over witnessing our tenor in real time, bewildered by the historically rare chanting and pounding of the audience for so long after the aria “E lucevan le stelle” in Act III–literally, show-stopping length–that he and the conductor finally relented, and the aria was performed again. Even more beautifully than the first time. I think many of us were soaring the rest of the weekend…

The same (extremely unusual) phenomenon had apparently happened at the premiere, after which there were whispers about the frustrated comments made by Ms. Gheorghiu about the repetition of the aria. Thus, a moment of operatic melodrama ensued on the night of the 16th, wherein our tenor is left without Tosca who (by speculation, deliberately) missed the cue to enter after “E lucevan,” leaving her Mario stranded and stunned on the rooftop of the Castel Saint’Angelo, where he awaits execution. The orchestra kept playing…Mario desolate and confused…no soprano! Finally, the orchestra stopped, and Mr. Kaufmann, with characteristic good humor and self-effacement, sung a little line about the lack of the soprano, and speaking directly to the audience, delicately apologized by indicating that he was as confused as they were. He had the audience utterly in his pocket…a moment of endearment.

Finally, the soprano entered and all was resumed as if nothing had happened.

Needless to say, concentration on my sewing deadlines suffered greatly this weekend–as did all hope of good sleep, in my excitement–so that all I have a head for at the close of this week (besides our tenor) is whimsical speculation about this mysterious “malady” which has been referred to as “Kaufmannia.” Why not attempt to begin defining it? It may not be in the DSM-V, but after all of the symptoms so many of us have experienced this weekend, perhaps it should be…

So, I shall save writing all more meaningful commentary until a time when deadlines are passed and a regular sleep pattern resumed. Until then, a little silliness. Enjoy, and thank you for putting up with your absent-minded seamstress…

Definition: “Kaufmannia*
*subject to change as this condition becomes more fully explored

Kaufmannia is a condition wherein the victim becomes paralyzed with delight leading to transcendent obsession brought on by exposure to the voice of Jonas Kaufmann.

In its mildest form, Kaufmannia may exhibit symptoms of unexpected weeping and temporary mania-like experiences. These feelings may marginally decrease if one avoids listening to Jonas for a prolonged period. Though abstaining from listening may be an effective short-term remedy (e.g. to promote concentration on an immediate work or study project), it is rarely practical, and includes long-term side-effects such as depression and loss of interest in life.

In its most extreme form–Kaufmannia Extremis–prolonged periods of transcendence may ensue, resulting in any or all of the following: sleeplessness, heart palpitations, shortness-of-breath, obsessive thinking, profound and sudden interest in the beauty of life, continually stopping to smell the roses, uncontrollable weeping, feelings of living in an alternate (and more beautiful) reality, opera obsession, phantom music playing in one’s ear, a tendency to hum or sing in languages one doesn’t understand, addictive tendencies, recurring dreams, inability to survive for long periods without “a dose of Jonas,” a mania to see live performances, increased tenderness and love for all creatures, increased pity (whether well-founded or delusional) for those who are not (yet) Kaufmanniacs, incessant desire to infect others with this illness for the good of humanity, and hopeless romanticism. Potentially negative side-effects include: inability to concentrate on humdrum realities of life (e.g. earning a living so that one can purchase more opera DVDs, CDs, etc), the anxious concern exhibited by friends (who have secretly been looking into the cost for padded rooms), and diminished bank account balances due to excessive opera-related purchases.

Kaufmannia is generally known to be terminal, without any known cure. In fact, studies show that those in Kaufmannia Extremis desire no cure, presumably due to the euphoric state of enhanced psycho-spiritual awareness and well-being experienced by the “sufferer.” Thus, there is currently no funding for research towards a remedy.

Highly contagious.

–from the “Other” Diagnostic & Statistical Manual-5 3/4

Baron Bryn and Jacobin Jonas: Tosca

napoleon pass
Bonaparte Crossing the Great St. Bernard Pass, by Jacques-Louis David (Photo credit: http://www.khanacademy.org)

(Alright, so “Jacobin” is going too far…)

What more can one ask for: we are in Rome in 1800 during Napoleon’s Italian campaign. We have a republican-romantic-idealist painter (Mario Cavaradossi, sung by Jonas Kaufmann) deeply in love with another artist—a singer (Tosca, sung by Angela Gheorghiu), caught up in a political crisis when Mario decides to shelter a political prisoner (who shares his republican ideals and the belief that Napoleon will ride in on his white horse, so to speak, and help those ideals to come true).

All this, and their foil is one of the greatest villains in opera: Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia—sung and acted to perfection by the great bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.

If Bryn had a moustache here, he'd be twirling it.
If Bryn had a curly moustache here, he’d be twirling it.

Torture, murder, art, love, lust, politics, suicide, religion, Napoleon, Rome. A recipe for a phenomenal story. When wedded to the music of the incomparable Puccini and conducted by Antonio Pappano, you have pure magic.

This is the magic of Tosca, an 1899 masterpiece in three acts by Giacomo Puccini, first performed in 1900. This particular production is from 2011 at the Royal Opera House, and the DVD can be found on Amazon. I have heard it called “theTosca; “the best Tosca ever,” etc. And it really would be hard to argue with that. Though it really deserves to be experienced without much foreknowledge of the story, there is–spoiler alert!a synopsis on Naxos, here.

(I think I will go hide now...)
The “Te Deum” (I think I will go hide now…)

The set is dramatic, and the staging often inspired (note: particularly the “Te Deum”…chills!); you have an absolute dream team of singers, at least two of whom (Bryn and Jonas) are also among the best actors in opera. It is just about as close to opera-theatre perfection as it gets.

About 6 weeks ago, almost simultaneously to seeing the filmed 2010 Paris Werther, I watched this production of Tosca with my family. Simply stunning.

If one is new to opera, Tosca would be the one I’d recommend starting with—and this particular production. I wouldn’t want to spoil some of the great arias (“E lucevan le stelle”; “Vissi d’arte”) if you haven’t heard them in context yet. But for a glimpse into Act I, I found the closest approximation that I could: our tenor singing the same role, but in a different production from a year earlier (Munich, 2010). Here is “Recondita armonia,” wherein Cavaradossi works on his painting of Mary Magdalene, comparing his model to the woman he loves:

Yes, and our thoughts are of you, Mr Kaufmann.
Yes, you’re a bit distracting yourself, Mr Kaufmann.

See and hear how he savors it, milks it, especially at the end. The whole of the 2011 ROH production has the same intensity.

You won’t want to miss it.

A Whimsical Werther

"Forever!" From Werther, Paris, 2010
“Forever!” From Werther, Paris, 2010

So, perhaps “whimsy” is not the first word that comes to mind when we think of Goethe’s—or Massenet’s—tragic and melancholy Werther.

But just for a little fun today–and for a final post on Werther before moving on–I had to share (for those who haven’t seen it already) a video that my friends Viv and Christine shared with me. It is one of several wonderfully impromptu, behind-the-scenes videos of our tenor (on YouTube) made by Esti Esther. This particular one is filmed right before Werther’s final, tragic scene in the 2010 Paris production.

Now, Jonas Kaufmann happens to be one of the best actors in opera, giving 110% in passion to each role. Most of us would think that, like some Daniel Day-Lewis of the “method acting” school, Jonas might be behind the scenes absorbed in meditations on poetry and death before such a big finale.

sleepless nights, and solitary confinement (Photo credit: www.theguardian.com)
sleepless nights, and solitary confinement
(Photo credit: http://www.theguardian.com)

Day-Lewis’s career is filled with stories like that of the preparation for the 1993 In the Name of the Father, when he chose to live in solitary confinement, and went several nights without sleep to prepare for an interrogation scene.

playing with the gummi bear
playing with the gummy bear

Yet, here Jonas is, just before the big tragic finale scene in Act IV…well, just have a look for yourself. No commentary is needed. And one doesn’t need to understand French:

"Charlotte, did you take my gummies?"
“Charlotte, did you take my gummies?”

I thought I’d share that last thought (for now) on this marvelous production of Werther, before moving on to Tosca. I hope you enjoy it.

I can’t help but think: if only our tragic hero took such delight in gummy bears, he might not have needed to borrow those guns from Albert.

Food for thought…

Massenet, musings, and the Met

Jonas Kaufmann as Werther, Paris 2010
Jonas Kaufmann as Werther, Paris 2010

Continuing the subject of Massenet’s Werther–the first opera I saw with our tenor–from my post from March 23, I thought I would take a moment to share something I’ve been pondering for more reasons than it is possible to name: a subscription to Met-on-Demand [MOD].

I’m sure those who are long-time opera fans have known about this for quite a while. But for the newbies like me: if you’re in the mood to watch opera on a fairly regular basis, it looks like a reasonable deal at $14.99/month. (And my mom and I are looking at going in on it together…not bad at $7.50/mo per person!) And there is a free 7-day trial. (See how I’m attempting to convince myself…?)

Oh, temptation.

One highlight among many from the 575+ recordings available from MOD: there is another production of Werther, again with Jonas in the title role and Sophie Koch as Charlotte, done at the Met a few years after the 2010 Paris production. Here is a teaser clip of Werther’s “O Nature” aria from Act I (the last part of the aria):

“I have so much in me, and the feeling for her absorbs it all; I have so much, and without her it all comes to nothing.”  ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Sorrows of Young Werther”

This little aria, our introduction to the character Werther, is really is a prayer to nature, as is highlighted by the first line: “O nature, full of grace,” echoing the Hail Mary. In the Paris production, Werther ends the aria in a kind of childlike wonder, almost ecstasy, basking in the beauty of the sunlight as though before the altar of his idol. The beginning of the aria, roughly translated, runs thus:

O nature, plein de grâce,

Reine du temps et de l’espace,

Daigne accueillit celui qui passe

Et te salue, humble mortel!

~     ~     ~

O nature, full of grace,

Queen of time and space,

Deign to welcome this passer-by

Who salutes you–this humble mortal!

"O, Nature!" from Werther, Paris 2010
“O, Nature!” from Werther, Paris 2010

We almost feel: if only his devotion had remained limited to the simple and abundant glories of nature–rather than becoming distracted by the far more complex and fickle attractions of romantic love–he might have been happier…

But then, where is the drama in that?

“Is this the destiny of man? Is he only happy before he has acquired his reason or after he has lost it?”  ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Sorrows of Young Werther”