On Jonas’ “L’Opéra,” and Massenet’s “Le Cid”

Poster of Massenet’s “Le Cid,” also featured in “L’Opéra”

I have been listening rather obsessively to Jonas’ most recent album of French repertoire, L’Opéra. (That is, when I’m not obsessively relistening to passages from Don Carlos!) One can see and sample, at the previous link, the arias included in this album, from Gounod to Massenet to Bizet, including a gorgeous “Au fond du temple saint” sung with Ludovic Tézier.

This album is more “up my alley,” as they say, than the recent Dolce Vita. (But hey, I would listen to Jonas sing the alphabet song, when it comes to that, so I am far from complaining!) L’Opéra is exquisitely sung and orchestrated, and the CD comes in a beautiful cover with a booklet of photos ~ including  some of the stunning Palais Garnier which comprises the outside and inside background of the CD cover ~ and the lyrics to each aria, both in English and French.

Jonas Kaufmann’s recent album of French repertoire, “L’Opéra”

Aside from the dazed and giddy feeling on hearing Jonas sing my name in #12 (“Rachel, quand du Seigneur” from La Juive, by Fromental Halévy), the real revelation of this beautiful album was, for me, first hearing the transcendent aria from Massenet’s Le Cid, “Ô Souverain, ô Juge, ô Père.” I am surprised that this aria has managed to escape me before. It was truly a revelation, and has sent me on a quest to get to know this opera. (Link above to Jonas singing it previous to the album.)

Here are the lyrics, in English, thanks to this link:

 

Ah! All is over, finished!
My beautiful dream of glory,
my dreams of happiness,
have flown away forever!

You take away my love,
you take away my victory,
Lord, I submit myself to you!
Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father,
always veiled, (but) always present,
I loved you when times were good (prosperous)
And I praise you on somber days
I go where your law leads me,
free of human regrets.
Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father,
your image alone for my soul is
where I submit into your hands.

Oh Heaven above, so blue, so bright…
spirits from above, looked at me,
although this soldier may be in despair,
but his Christian faith remains.
You may come, you may appear to me,
at the dawn of the eternal day.
Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father!
As the servant of a just Lord,
I will respond to your call without fear,
Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father!

It is too bad, in a way, that recordings of the aria in concert don’t tend to include the brief interlude of the chorus of heavenly voices, including that of St. James, as it does in the opera. It of course makes sense…but still, it is so beautiful that I wish it could be included in every version.

A few notes on the opera: Massenet’s 4-act opera premiered in Paris in 1885, based on the Pierre Corneille play, with libretto by Louis Gallet, Adolphe d’Ennery and Edouard Blau. The story is one of honor and duty, versus love; of interpersonal and familial struggles within the politics of 11th century Spain. Rodrigue, a valiant warrior who is later nicknamed “le Cid” (“the Lord”), is knighted by the King in Act I, and Rodrigue’s hoped-for marriage to his beloved Chimène is approved. But in addition to these honors, Rodrigue’s father, Don Diègue, is made the protector of the King’s daughter. This act is felt, by the Conte de Gormas (Chimène’s father), to be a deliberate snub to himself. Gormas proceeds to insult Don Diègue, compromising the latter’s honor. In order to regain it, Don Diègue begs his son to challenge Gormas. Rodrigue knows that such an act would estrange him from his beloved Chimène forever; yet, honor bids him fight. Ironically, as my mom has pointed out about the original Corneille play, the very thing that Chimène loves about Rodrigue is his honor; thus, it is a catch-22. I won’t spoil the rest, except to say that the exquisite aria comes in the midst of what Rodrigue believes will be his final battle for the glory of Spain, as he and his army appear to be defeated, or nearly so.

I loved this opera, and want to continue to get better acquainted with it. Along with the stunning Act III aria ~ a fulfillment of earlier set-up in Rodrigue’s vision of, and dedication to, Saint James of Compostella ~ I also particularly loved the Act I knighting scene, and the ceremonial chorus of bells and voices that precedes and follows it.

Unfortunately, there is no recording, CD nor DVD nor elsewhere, of our tenor singing the title role. So, I looked elsewhere, and found a broadcast which, at the time of this writing, is available on YouTube, from the Washington Opera, with Placido Domingo and Elisabete Matos. I chose this recording first because of the obliging English subtitles. It was a lovely production with spectacular costumes and staging, even if the video quality looks like a VHS recording of a TV broadcast, which might well be the case. It’s a treasure.

My second experience of the opera was also thanks to YouTube. It is from l’Opéra de Marseille, 2011, with Roberto Alagna in the lead and it still can be found at this link at the time of this post. I waited on this production, as it doesn’t have the English subtitles, but once I had the gist of the story I was happy to follow along without them.

Roberto Alagna as “Le Cid”

I loved the costumes in this one, and the casting overall. Béatrice Uria-Monzon was a fantastic Chimène. It took me a bit to warm up to her, but I ended up loving both her voice and overall portrayal. She is strong and fierce, without losing a certain emotional vulnerability which is crucial. I felt the chemistry between the two leads, especially in their big scene together before the battle. As to Roberto, he not only has a beautiful voice especially for French repertoire, but there is something about him that makes our hearts go out to him; he is eminently watchable and lovable.

Rodrigue and Chimène, “Le Cid”

His visible distress, his hopeless courage, give one the irrational wish to take him into one’s arms and reassure him. One hears it in his voice: the earnest, distressed appeal. It is irresistible and I was behind him completely. It is this quality that makes Roberto so compelling in the earnest, noble, and self-sacrificing roles. It is what makes him such a lovely Don Carlos, particularly in the French, and a heartbreaking Cyrano de Bergerac.

I must also put a link here to Roberto’s irresistible “Ô Souverain, ô Juge, ô Père” which had me in tears…

What is it about the French repertoire that is so compelling at this time? From the French Don Carlos, to the French version of Les Vêpres Siciliennes, to Le Cid and L’Opéra…it seems to be a recurring theme at the moment. All I can say is that it is a beauty that has come rather unlooked for, and I’m thirsting for more.

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“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!

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.

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”

Jonas’ Werther…for free? Ah, “pourquoi me réveiller”!?

By a happy accident, I’d forgotten to cancel my free trial of Amazon Prime last year—I have about 5 days left at the moment—and so the first opera I saw with our wonder-tenor Jonas Kaufmann is viewable for free, compliments of Prime and Medici (at least here in the US), and can be found here.

Werther is Jules Massenet’s four-act opera of 1887, based on a 1774 novel by Goethe. This is the 2010 production of the Opera National de Paris, starring our tenor in the title role, Sophie Koch as Charlotte, and Ludovic Tezier as Charlotte’s fiancé Albert. A good synopsis can be found at Naxos, here.

"O Nature!
“O Nature!”

As you might imagine, our tenor is sublime as the poetic, melancholy, Nature-worshipping Werther, whose doomed love of Charlotte—affianced to Albert before love awakens between herself and the young poet—leads to tragedy.

Please don’t miss this beautiful, moving performance and production. For a taste of it, click the link above—or here—to the heart-stopping aria, “Pourquoi me réveiller?” (“Why rouse me?”) You won’t want to be awakened from the dream, either…

The beginning of an obsession: The Pearl Fishers duet

It was approximately 7:30am PST on February 5th 2016 that I first heard the voice of Jonas Kaufmann and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The means: an innocent-looking facebook link to their Pearl Fishers duet from a concert (“Hvorostovsky and Friends”) in Moscow of 2008.

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From a childhood journal. My first crush: Samuel Ramey as Don Giovanni

I had not followed opera ~ except for perhaps one or two Bryn Terfel productions on dvd ~ since I was a little girl with a crush on Samuel Ramey. However, having grown up with the marvelous Zeffirelli production of Turandot with Placido Domingo, my family and I had finally taken advantage the previous evening of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD cinema showings ~ this time, the Met’s most recent Zeffirelli-based production of Turandot. Swedish soprano Nina Stemme was phenomenal as the lead, and the set was glorious to behold.

As we were underwhelmed by the Calaf, however, Debra (my marvelous mom) went on a search for current tenors ~ again, we had not been following opera ~ and came across the wonder-tenor Jonas Kaufmann. (Had we been under a rock all these years…?)

Never would we have imagined that any tenor after Domingo would have a voice of a similar quality. Mr Kaufmann’s is reminiscent of his, yet altogether unique; his has a darker texture than that of most tenors. Emotional, rich, “veiled”–as I have heard it described. Sublime. (But, truthfully, I don’t think the perfect word has yet been invented.)

And glorious Dmitri Hvorostovsky? A heart-stoppingly beautiful baritone, whose presence and power are unmatched, and who brings emotional richness and captivating charm to every role. Dima, we love you!

Little did Debra know what she would start with the innocent sharing of a link to a duet.

Since that time (about a month and a half later, as I record this), I’ve managed to see filmed or YouTube versions of operas such as Don Carlo (oh, have I fallen for Verdi, or what!), La Fanciulla del West, Il Trovatore, La Forza del Destino, Andrea Chénier, Manon Lescaut, Tosca, and Werther; I’ve seen Mr Kaufmann’s glorious An Evening with Puccini in the local cinema; and have discovered innumerable arias and lieder that have brought joy and light into a busy little life.

In a world filled with tragedy and loss, it is a great gift to find joy in the Beauty of something so well done, and so passionately. I thought of scribbling my thoughts here, as I continue to journey into this wonderful world, even if no one else were to read them.

But one of the best joys is discovering other opera fans and friends! I’m learning more by the day, and love sharing the love right back.

I figure: if one who has little to no means to spend on travel and expensive opera tickets and no formal musical knowledge or training, nor a facility for languages other than my own, can appreciate the great gift that opera is…well, anyone can. (And should, if possible!)

Jonas, Dmitri, and all of these great artists have opened ~ to this family, at least ~ the wide landscape of opera.

Oh, what have we been missing all these years?

A humble “thank you” to all artists who bring light and beauty into our lives.