“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!

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New delights, sweet pain: a week with Così fan tutte

It was a blog post on Mozart’s Così fan tutte that finally inspired me to try seeing a production of it. (Yay for opera enablers!! Thank you Blake!!) But I didn’t stop at one. In about a week’s time, or just a little over, I’ve seen three different recordings of this extraordinarily beautiful opera–usually in time snatched far too late at night for me–and the glorious music has been in my head all week like a haunting, friendly spirit.

If you would like a Cliffs’ Notes version of what will probably shape up to be a wordy blog ***or if you aren’t familiar with the story of Così fan tutte yet (in which case, spoilers!)*** here are my highlights:

1. Please see this marvelous opera, in some version! I’d especially recommend the 2006 Glyndebourne production, which is free on Amazon if you’re in the U.S. and have Prime!

2. I highly recommend S. Blake Duncan’s blogs for deeper appreciation after you’ve seen it, particularly: In Defense of Così, and my personal favorite, More on Così fan Tutte. My discovery of all three of the productions that I’ll mention here is the direct result of his recommendations and these wonderful posts. (Again, many thanks…!) I was grateful not only for the sensitive insight of a musician—I so especially appreciated the discussion of the “sound” of winds, like the winds of change, in the orchestration, as well as the discussion of “il core vi dono” and the other pieces throughout—but one of historical perspective in the face of modern sensibilities which are, on the surface, somewhat at odds with the exquisite Mozart/Da Ponte work.

First productions…

The first recording that I watched of this opera, just over a week ago now, was the 2014 production from Met on Demand, with Isabel Leonard, Susanna Phillips, and Matthew Polenzani—and Danielle de Niece as a bright and spunky Despina. A charming, winning production, beautifully done by all.

Luca Pisaroni (Guglielmo) and Miah Persson (Fiordiligi)
Luca Pisaroni (Guglielmo) and Miah Persson (Fiordiligi)

The second, and my favorite as a whole, was the one I chose for my birthday movie: the magical, bright 2006 Glyndebourne production with Luca Pisaroni (I was sold, right there!), Miah Persson, a very handsome Nicolas Rivenq, Topi Lehtipuu, and Anke Vondung. (As of this post, it’s available free if you have Amazon Prime, at least in the US!) It really captures the lighthearted as well as bittersweet/painful elements in the brilliant story, and the singers portray the characters with a winning tenderness, exquisitely sung. Luca’s portrayal of hurtful resentment I found especially compelling.

The third, although I regrettably had to break it up into a number of viewings, and not with the full concentration I would like to have given it, is another beauty from 1992, which as of this posting can still be found at this link, with English subtitles. I’d like to see it again, all in one sitting. But I thought the set, costumes, and ensemble were all a treat. I particularly enjoyed the voice and performance of Rodney Gilfry as Guglielmo here. (The scene where Ferrando woos Fiordiligi, with Guglielmo looking on…ouch…) And the ending…fitting and lovely.

A Così summary…

The setting is late-18th century Naples. The storyline, with libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte and the most glorious music by Mozart, is not unlike a story told in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, wherein a certain man persuades his best friend to woo his wife, in order to test her fidelity. In the case of Così, it is two men, Ferrando and Guglielmo, who are challenged by their older, worldly friend Don Alfonso to put their own fiancées to the test by wooing them in disguise—Ferrando and Guglielmo ostensibly being called off to the battlefield—and the upshot will be, in Don Alfonso’s mind, to disabuse his friends of the notion that these two women are any more faithful or high-minded than any other human being. Così fan tutte! (They [women] all do it!) The men have help in this endeavor from the clever maid Despina, who encourages her mistresses’ infidelities by her woman-of-the-world “wisdom”; she also disguises herself at various times as a notary, or a doctor –the latter a hilarious spoof on Mesmer’s “magnetism” that was a current fad, who “saves” the would-be wooers from death by poison. Guglielmo woos his friend’s betrothed Dorabella, and Ferrando woos Fiordiligi—and it’s hard to resist the charms of either.

A few thoughts…

The very title, Così fan tutte, seems to present a challenge for us, as though suggesting that troubles with constancy is a “woman’s problem”; I won’t go into the reasons for thinking of this differently, as was so well done by the articles mentioned above. Nor do I think in this case, like Jane Austen’s Anne in Persuasion, that “men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story”–agreed, yes; but Mozart and Da Ponte were both ahead of their time here in the implications of this opera. I personally think that had the plot gone in the other direction, with the women testing the fidelity of the men, the results would likely enough have been the same in Mozart and Da Ponte’s story…in fact, as Despina’s many comments suggest, that idea is a given. No need to test it, in her mind.

In this character-sextet—the two couples, Don Alfonso, and Despina—Despina is clearly the mirror of Don Alfonso, even though his opposite in gender and station. They’re not romantics. Despina’s words to her mistresses are as cutting as any, as the ladies pine for the men who must leave them:

To hope for faithfulness
in men, in soldiers?
Don’t let people hear you, for heaven’s sake!
All men are made of the same stuff;
the swaying boughs, the fickle breezes
have greater stability than men have.

The “problem” here is not about womens’ constancy, nor their submission (a problem that haunts Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, for example). When I consider Così, the more intriguing “problem” for me is the human story itself. The trick Don Alfonso and the men play is warranted in the context of a farce–and to view it with excessive sobriety is surely not the intent. We can’t forget that it IS a farce. I mean, we very willingly suspend disbelief as the ladies are “tricked” by their own—or their sisters’–betrothed husbands. And simply because they’re disguised in exotic costumes and wearing outrageous mustacchi? They’re fooled by the idea of magnets extracting poison from the bodies of the ridiculously convulsing men who were driven to suicide out of love at first sight? It’s delightfully outrageous…and we’re having fun along the way.

But…there is a “but,” in my mind. Just as with Shakespeare, who always managed to make things more humanly complicated and interesting than any genre would ever require, so too Mozart and Da Ponte are just too darn interesting, brilliant, and poignant in their creation to make it only a send-up, or only a comedy. We may just as often want to weep as to laugh. How will the characters recover from this? Will they? And not only the romances, but–I always seem to worry about this especially–the friendships of the men, both of whom have succeeded in making the other’s betrothed unfaithful.

Yes, the music is so glorious and the libretto so captivating as to make us pause.

It does have the element of the Shakespearean problem play, in that there is an ostensibly “happy” ending, not without room for interpretation. “Interpretation” not as in conceptualizing, nor trying to appease a 21st century audience, but character interpretation. A pause, a doubt, a hesitation, an unexpected nuance. As I left each production, floating in the clouds at some of the most beautiful music ever written, and happy…I still had that lurking feeling afterwards: but will they really be okay?

I wouldn’t compare the two, as Così is a little more Twelfth Night than Measure for Measure, but in the latter (again, spoiler alert!) we are following a character who seems to possess a sort of omnicient, Godlike perspective on the play’s situation, Duke Vincentio. He is ever observing, testing…even manipulating events into submission. (It’s a good thing that he’s a decent character, or else everyone would be in trouble.) But after bringing justice to a messed-up situation, the play ends with him confidently declaring his love to a nun, Isabella—nevermind that, not long before, we were so disturbed by Angelo’s proposal to her. Sure, we might think: obviously, Angelo’s was a rotten deal—but the Duke, well, he’s a decent guy…he’s not blackmailing her, although she does, one might say, owe him…But he must really love her and want what’s best for her. And really, she’s only a novice at the convent, and maybe she doesn’t really want to be a nun in the first place. But still…still. It’s more than a little disconcerting. One can interpret it so that the ending is left open—and indeed, the best version I’ve seen of it literally has the lights fade on the sight of the handsome, commanding Duke standing with an outstretched hand towards an ambivalent Isabella. What will happen? Much of what we are left to imagine will depend on the trajectory of what has gone before, and the characterization of each.

So, back to Così. It is a lighthearted romp, and something in the category of magical realism. When I first heard the overture, there is a stong, confident buoyancy…suggestive of the later refrain of “Così fan tutte” and the sharpness of, say, “come scoglio immoto resta”, which then melts into moments of something…unexpected, bittersweet.

Such is the melting required of the men’s hearts at the end, if all is to be well. One hopes that all will be well…but something is off. But even if the couples are “really” okay–which is not absolutely certain–such wisdom, tenderness, and forgiveness as the ending requires is not likely to happen in a moment. I think the reverse kind of forgiveness needs to happen too: we have to remember that it is a send-up, because, really, the men have played a pretty unkind trick.

So, no, we don’t quite know how things would turn out, and it would have taken a Mozart and Da Ponte to write the kind of sequel poignant enough to do justice to a perfectly imperfect situation.

Some of the most beautiful moments in the opera are based on an imperfect situation, such as “il core vi dono,” surely one of the most beautiful and poignant love duets ever written. If it weren’t for that one major caveat—the trickery involved—it would surely be the consummate love duet. Here’s the same link shared in Blake’s blog posts above mentioned, which made me seek out this marvelous Glyndebourne production:

Other moments have been running incessantly through my head all week, such as Ferrando’s “un’aura amorosa” (beautifully done at this link by Lawrence Brownlee), or the, for me, literally show-stoppingly beautiful farewell trio between Fiordiligi, Dorabella, and Don Alfonso, as the two men (so the ladies think) leave for the battlefield. When I first heard this trio, “soave sia il vento” (a link here to a version sung by Renee Fleming, Thomas Hampson, and Susan Graham), I could hardly go on…I had to listen again. It is transcendent…and the “wind” sound in the strings so perfect…one feels at sea:

Soave sia il vento

Nicolas Rivenq as Don Alfonso. (Seriously, were I a man, I’d wear a coat and scarf just like that…)

And Don Alfonso: are we supposed to necessarily “like”–or think that we should think like—Don Alfonso or Despina, simply because they’re proven right? I personally don’t think so. Hopefully most of us still believe that fidelity is not only possible, but necessary…but also that forgiveness in the midst of frailty is possible, and necessary. So, as long as we stay in the realm of farce, where the old jokes about infidelity and inconstancy are given free rein, sure, Don Alfonso and Despina are fun to watch and listen to, and most certainly not villains. But the fact that they are “experienced” doesn’t make them wiser or more compassionate. They give the two fellows the lesson needed, but not how to deal with it after. I thought of the line from the 1999 film The Winslow Boy, based on the Terence Rattigan play: it is “easy to do justice; very hard to do right.” What Don Alfonso did and the point he was trying to make might have been a just one…but was it right? Those who love each other build the other up ~ they don’t tear the other down. We’re all damaged goods. What if we strove to nurture and treasure the beloved into greater health and wholeness, rather than to question, doubt, or challenge it to an external ideal?

That, hopefully, is what they’re left with at the end to consider and to live out, but it’s not what they lived in the story. And it doesn’t necessarily justify Don Alfonso’s attitude, his cynicism and mocking of genuine emotion and ideals. (We really need ideals, at least for ourselves…the old adage about shooting for the moon and landing on the barn roof might be applicable here. One of our many tendencies as human beings is to fall short of our ideals anyway; if we only shoot for the barn roof we aren’t even going to get off the ground.) Did they really have to break the “other” first in order to realize that their beloved women were indeed women and not angelic beings? Perhaps. It doesn’t make it right.

But where would the story be otherwise?

Whatever the case, the very “problems” add to the captivating beauty of this opera for me. Part delightful farce, part something decidedly more. So much more. Like Shakespeare, Mozart and Da Ponte cannot help making it more. (Though Verdi’s Don Carlo has the edge for all-time favorite operas, with Don Giovanni being more or less tied with it, Mozart is certainly now my favorite composer.) The complications involved with this opera make it an even greater source of interest, beauty, humor, and pathos…like life itself. It is a delightful, bittersweet, gloriously beautiful work that has haunted me all week, and I am already looking forward to delving ever deeper, finding new productions, and revisiting these, particularly the Glyndebourne. The lines that consummate the heart-rending love duet sum up my feelings of this first Così week perfectly:

Che nuovi diletti! Che dolce penar!”(“What new delights! What sweet pain!”)

Happy Listening: In Memory of a “Sirius” Opera Fan

(Dedicated to the memory of Mr. Robert W. White.)

The passionate opera community on Facebook is a real treasure. Two of the online places that I’ve been frequenting include the Met Opera Live in HD Fans group, and its smaller sister-group, Sirius Opera Fans. The former is focused primarily on discussing the live cinema screenings from the Metropolitan Opera.  (Special note: Verdi’s Nabucco–conducted by James Levine and starring Placido Domingo–is being broadcast live in HD from the Met in only about 9 hours from the time of this post, on Jan. 7th, 12:55pm ET/9:55am PST, to a number of local cinemas!) Yet, outside of the immediate Met broadcast focus, there are many shares and conversations surrounding other opera events, performances, birthdays, and historical gems worldwide. Many members have a wealth of knowledge and insight into opera–they’re the best “enablers” of opera addiction out there! Sirius Opera Fans is primarily for those who listen to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, whether that be the Met channel on Sirius XM Radio, or another station. Some are the live broadcasts from the Met, and many are archived treasures. Either way, it’s a chance for opera lovers to listen to a broadcast together, and share the joy through a running commentary.

One weekly post that became something of a “fixture” in the Sirius group—many of us began to rely on it—was that shared by Mr. Robert W. White. Thus, we were all in shock and mourning to learn, on Dec 17, of Mr. White’s passing the previous day. (The only clue might have been the slight gap in his usual postings, his final having been December 3rd.) I did not know him personally, so I’m only sharing thoughts as one relative newbie among many members who benefited from his contributions in this group and elsewhere. But for a little background, his obituary can be found at this link, thanks to one of the group members. It sounds like he was as giving in his personal life as he was with his opera friends.

Mr. White joined the Sirius group in November of 2015, and began sharing his weekly posts there in February of 2016. Besides giving us the schedule of operas to be broadcast on Sirius the following week, Mr. White would include his own comments and recommendations on these individual broadcasts that he had written down over the years as an avid opera-goer and listener.

Mr. White never minced words, and his posts were peppered with comments like the following: “Rysanek bids farewell to Verdi at the Met with a whimper” (on the Verdi Otello broadcast of 2/15/1964); or “Sereni’s limitations as Luna are only in comparison to Warren or Bastianini, not today’s rather pitiful crop of Verdi baritones” (on the Il Trovatore broadcast of 3/31/71). Certain motifs are evident in his comments, over time. For example, he didn’t consider himself much of a “Rossinian,” except perhaps for a love of Il Barbiere. We read above what he generally thought of baritones in the last decade and a half. He perhaps had a tendency to favor Marton, or Siepi—I say “amen!” to the latter!–but he would never hesitate to say which recordings represented anyone in stronger or weaker voice. (I still have not discovered a mention of Cesare Siepi as being “out of form,” however. My own theory is that “the lion Siepi”–Mr. White’s title for him–was never out of form!) Too, Mr. White gave fascinating historical tidbits to add to the appreciation, whether it was that a certain production had been postponed due to the JFK assassination, or whether it was a conductor’s last recorded performance of a composer’s music.

Whether one agreed with him or not on his views—and he’d be the first to comment that they were only his preferences—he was always worth paying attention to, as his perspective came from many years of dedicated listening, and he had a vast well of knowledge which he drew on. His praise was worth the earning; if he said of a production that it was “highly recommended”–such as the 3/6/1954 Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Corena, Merrill, Peters, Valletti, and Siepi which I have playing in the background as I write this—one figured it was the real deal.

So, yes, Mr. White is much missed; yet, his presence is still there in the group, and will always be treasured.

One of our Sirius group members has started posting weekly schedules as he is able, in the tradition of Mr. White, and some of us are working on compiling his posts (currently in the Sirius group in draft form) into a database organized alphabetically by composer and opera, with comment highlights and links from each opera entry, to the applicable document that Mr. White shared with us. Likely, there are many other postings of his in his other groups prior to February of 2016. To begin to organize the many wonderful comments he shared with us has been a labor of love, and, most certainly, a work-in-progress. Speaking for myself, I’ve learned a great deal, and have taken many personal notes.

Of course, one can still see Mr. White’s original postings in the Sirius Opera Fans group, or get the link to the database-in-progress there. And of course, feel free to come on over and join–and of course the larger Met Live in HD Fans, which is the main group–if you have an interest in experiencing opera on the radio, with friends!

And to our always-remembered friend Mr. White, thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge and experience with us. We’ll keep listening and posting, in your memory.

Happy New Year everyone. And, as Mr. White would typically end his weekly notes with, “Happy listening”!

Month #1 of (mostly) Met-on-Demand

*Note #1: if we’re friends on Facebook, you’ve probably seen these notes already…

**Note #2: These are very informal–and too lengthy–impressions from an opera newbie!

***Note #3: “Cliff’s Notes” Version of this post: Please see the 2011 Don Giovanni and the 2007 Eugene Onegin, if I absolutely must narrow it down. Also, fell head-over-heels with three bass singers: René Pape, Štefan Kocán, and John Relyea! (Already loved bass Ildar, of course!)

~~~

Oscar Wilde said that “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it”. Well, apparently I’ve been following this advice with the opera addiction. The subtitle to this post might be: “Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Give into My Met-On-Demand Addiction”. (It might also be subtitled: “The Month of the Bass and Baritone”.)

What enabled me to watch an unusual amount of recorded opera this month is that I happened to be, at several points, involved in an aspect of my sewing work which is too rare: that which allows for multitasking! (Mostly the hand-sewing part, which alone took a good 18 hours lately. YES!) So…here goes! Not necessarily in the order in which I watched them.

don-giovanni-collageDon Giovanni (Met, 2011)

Thanks to my friend and enabler, Viv, and partly inspired by seeing the recent HD cinema showing of the current Don Giovanni with Simon Keenlyside–which I had mixed feelings about overall, but enjoyed, particularly Simon himself–I finally watched the 2011 Don Giovanni (same set/production) with Mariusz Kwiecien, Luca Pisaroni, Štefan Kocán, Marina Rebeka, Barbara Frittoli, and Ramón Vargas.

Oh my. I have fallen in love with this opera all over again, and simply cannot get it out of my head. Mariusz is a most charming, seductive Don, and what shall we say of Luca? I see why he is a legend in this role of Leporello ~ vocally, it just doesn’t get better, but added to that is an impeccable comic timing and complete naturalness in the role. I particularly loved the way Mariusz and Luca play off one another ~ I have never seen a production which captures so well the relationship between Giovanni and Leporello, love-hate though it is, as Luca has expressed his interpretation in a recent interview…however much they may betray one another, is not unlike a dysfunctional married couple, each knowing the other so well. There are even moments of tenderness. When the Don makes his final act of defiance to agree to come to dinner with the Commendatore, there is a moment of farewell between them, which I have not quite seen anything like. (And indeed, Luca’s Leporello looks somewhat lost without his villainous master in the final minutes…)

This production captured the comedy of this incredible opera, and both the direction and the conducting–Fabio Luisi–kept a sprightly pace. In fact, the whole production felt sprightly and energetic! The Anna–dang, she’s great!–Elvira, Masetto, and Zerlina were also wonderful. I went from moments of irrepressible laughter–such as when Leporello imitates the Don in seducing Donna Elvira–to tears, as in Mariusz’s “deh vieni alla finestra”…yes, that charming Don manages to seduce his audience every bit as much as he did the 1800+ ladies.

Then, there was the new-to-me discovery of the glorious bass Štefan Kocán, the Commendatore! Wow! (Thank you, Gabriela, you were so right!!) It was some time before I could move on to the rest of the opera after the Commendatore’s death in the opening, so beautiful was his final minute of singing with Giovanni and Leporello that I had to rewatch it again and again. (By this point I must have watched that moment probably two dozen times altogether.) And of course, at the end, he returns in a most gloriously haunting finale…

All this, in a production that was done only 2 weeks after Mariusz had back surgery! Amazing. Needless to say, I highly recommend it. If you haven’t already fallen in love with this opera, this production will probably do the trick. 🙂

il-trovatore-2015-collageIl Trovatore (Met, 2015)

Be prepared for tears on this one. Not so much due to the operatic tragedy of the story, as the reception by the Met audience and orchestra of beloved Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who returned to his role of the Count di Luna after the announcement of his brain tumor and the months of chemotherapy that followed. (Just wait until the final bows and curtain calls…have tissues handy!)

This was only the second time I’ve seen a recorded production of this opera. I marvel at the vocal gymnastics that are required of our leads, and Anna Netrebko had me breathless as Leonora, particularly in her Act IV arias…dang! Dmitri, of course, shone as the Count di Luna, with such a powerful stage presence alongside the extraordinary bass Štefan Kocán as Ferrando…amazing! Dolora Zajick was a wonderful Azucena, and I very much liked Younghoon Lee as Manrico ~ very dynamic.

Loved the Goyaesque set and the period costume. Overall, a beautiful production.

Now looking forward to seeing the earlier Trovatore, from 2011…!

magic-flute-branagh-rene-collage**Movie Break!** (Not from the Met:) Kenneth Branagh’s The Magic Flute, 2006

So…now for The Magic René–oops, I mean, The Magic Flute.

Okay, I actually watched this one before most of the others, and it’s not Met, but I thought it worth a mention, as I’ve become so hopelessly enamoured of René Pape. I’ve been remotely following him for months, but was utterly smitten after his performances in both Parsifal (Met, 2013) and his King Marke in the Met Live in HD Tristan und Isolde in early October.

I have never seen a production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte…nor Der ZauberRené for that matter ~ so, please take this with a grain of salt, but I thoroughly enjoyed Branagh’s quirky, random humor transposed into a fantastical World War I setting with an anti-war focus. Not to mention the Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque English libretto by Stephen Fry. Joseph Kaiser (Tamino), Amy Carson (Pamina), and glorious, mesmerizing magician-bass René Pape (Sarastro) led the cast. (Yes, as much as I adore Branagh, I daresay you know who was the magician that drew me to THIS movie…) The CGI effects are pretty cheesy in spots, but it’s somehow in keeping with the magical, goofy oddity of the whole.

nozze-collageLe Nozze di Figaro, Met, 2014

Another lighthearted moment was the Met’s Le Nozze di Figaro from the 2014-15 season (available on Met on Demand), with Ildar Abdrazakov, one of my favorite bass voices! Again, as familiar as much of the music is to me, I’d never seen a production and didn’t know how delightful and hilarious it is! I loved it. Ildar, as the witty servant Figaro, couldn’t be more adorable if he tried, and Peter Mattei (wow, another beautiful voice, and a new favorite!) as the womanizing Count Almaviva was just fantastic. The whole cast was delightful, and had me laughing up in the workshop…

Il Trovatore, Met, 2011

After the wonderful 2015 Il Trovatore that I watched the previous week, I watched the same wonderful David McVicar production–with some of the same cast, notably Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Štefan Kocán, and Dolora Zajick–in their earlier 2011 production, and was intrigued and delighted with the similarities and differences. It’s really hard to choose overall.

In both, Dima shines as the Count di Luna, Štefan Kocán is an irresistably ruthless bass Ferrando, and Dolora Zajick strikes me as a master of the gypsy Azucena. But here we have a different Leonora and Manrico, sung in 2011 by Sondra Radvanovsky and Marcelo Alvarez. While I thoroughly appreciated the Netrebko/Lee combination of 2015, and vocally it is really hard to choose–and I am naturally a little more drawn to Netrebko’s vocal quality–yet I must say Sondra really won me over in this role, and particularly the chemistry between her and Marcelo, who was also a very endearing and strong Manrico. The character interpretation of Leonora was less melancholy than Netrebko’s, and one really gets behind Sondra, whose expressive face and adoring love for Manrico are so evident. I thoroughly enjoyed both, but I must give the edge to the Radvanovsky/Alvarez combination for our two leads. (That being said, if one has time for only one of the two productions, I might choose the 2015 if for nothing else than the beautiful reception for Dima, and the endearing and heart-wrenching applause and roses for him at the end…)

eugene-onegin-2007-collageEugene Onegin, Met, 2007 and 2013

A real highlight of this past opera week for me was the new-to-me discovery of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, another which I did a double header on, seeing both the 2007 production with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Renée Fleming, and Ramón Vargas, as well as the more recent production with Mariusz Kwiecien, Anna Netrebko, and Piotr Beczala. I had not known this story previously ~ about inaccessible love, haughty rejection, and the pride that destroys friendships and romantic love ~ based on the verse-novel by Alexander Pushkin. Okay, so I do have a tendency to love anything 19th century anyway, but I was captivated by these characters, and utterly loved it. It is *quintessentially* 19th century in its themes, with an ending I wouldn’t have expected in an opera. I won’t say more, but I’d like to write a more fleshed-out post on this opera alone at some point, rather than just pointing out a few highlights of these productions.

Both Anna and Renée are absolutely luminous in the role of the shy but stronger-than-she-appears Tatiana, and I really cannot choose between the two whose interpretation I prefer. (But I was more invested in Renée’s struggles, perhaps because it was my first Eugene, and I loved the whole production so much altogether.) Piotr and Ramón were both wonderful as the honorable, lovable, but almost irrationally-jealous Lenski…it was my first time seeing Piotr in anything and I was so impressed! For Eugene, I would be hard pressed to give a preference as to their vocal beauty in the role; but in terms of interpretation and sheer force of presence, undoubtedly, Dmitri has the commanding, striking haughtiness that instantly catches one off guard, as this character does Tatiana. He is positively statuesque. I mean, this Eugene really out-Darcys Mr. Darcy, and is more aimless and cynical than a Eugene Wrayburn. Unquestionably, I would choose Dima for the role, if I were forced to choose. (But I would very highly recommend both.)

Visually, both productions are luscious, and the costumes stunning. The 2013 is quite glorious to look at. My own preference, though, is decidedly in favor of the earlier 2007 production with Dima and Renée: it is utterly magical in its stark simplicity. A very minimalist set with a slightly “boxed-in” look (thematically in keeping with the bounded-in-a-nutshell situation of the characters…), but with the most stunning colors–I’d like to create a photo collage of the different scenes–and falling leaves, as though reflective of the beauty of romantic love even in it’s autumn…when it is rejected and inaccessible.

Both are so beautifully and feelingly conducted by Valery Gergiev, and there is a wonderful behind-the-scenes mini-documentary on this after the 2007 stream.

I will be rewatching both versions again and again no doubt, but particularly the 2007 version, which will probably go down as one of my favorite opera productions.💙💔

Of course, Eugene Onegin will be live in the cinemas from the Met in April of 2017, again with Dmitri, in combination with Anna Netrebko and Štefan Kocán…I absolutely cannot wait!

Afterward

Now that I’ve practically written a novel of notes, I thought I’d also mention that these are only a few of the opera beauties I’ve heard and seen this month, which includes a live-stream with Mariusz of Donizetti’s La Favorite, and the Met Live in HD Tristan und Isolde with Nina Stemme and René.

A few radio highlights include a really marvelous radio transmission of a Don Carlo with René (Philip II), Mariusz (Rodrigo), and Michael Fabiano (Carlo) from the San Francisco Opera of June 2016; also, another Don Carlo audio with René and Dima from the Met-on-Demand (audio only)…both stunningly beautiful. Also, it’s been great fun to experience, via radio, this year’s Met production of Guillaume Tell, with Gerald Finley (Tell), Marina Rebeka (Mathilde) and another magician-bass, John Relyea (the evil Gessler! A new bass love!!). Then, this past week, another live radio broadcast of the Met’s Don Giovanni, this time with Ildar Abdrakazov in the lead! A most marvelous Don…perfect! And this has not remotely covered it all.

It’s a huge joy to be part of the Sirius Opera Fans group and Met Opera Live in HD Fans group (both on Facebook), which have been such inspiring places to discuss opera love, to learn, and to share insight. (And to find more opera-enablers!! 😉 )

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!

Update from the Seamstress, and “Madama Butterfly”

Hello, dear Reader (for whomever may be reading this…).

Aha. This is what my sewing workshop has been lacking...
Aha. This is what my sewing workshop has been lacking…

Forgive me if I need to slow the post-pace a bit for the coming four to six weeks. This is the busiest time of year for me in regards to sewing deadlines, and I have school deadlines on top of it–through mid-May.

So, please don’t be surprised if my posts are a little sporadic for the coming weeks. I will try to keep a minimum of a post per week, even through the busy times.

(Photo Credit: www.fandango.com)
(Photo Credit: http://www.fandango.com)

On the bright side: I am seeing the Encore Live-in-HD Met production of Madama Butterfly in our local cinema tonight! I have heard that Kristine Opolais is powerful in the role. Also starring Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton.

Here’s to a time full of productivity ~ and which will hopefully fly by quickly. (And raising a cheer for audiobooks and opera keeping me company in the workshop!)

Thank you for reading!

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”