Victor Hugo and Verdi: A Winning Team if Ever There Were One

Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo

When Victor Hugo premiered his play Le roi s’amuse (The king takes his amusement) in 1832, one suspects he couldn’t have believed that it would find much of an audience. About the sexual rapaciousness of Francis I, one of the most beloved of all French kings, and perhaps hinting at the behavior of King Louis-Philippe (then in power), it would have been a controversial play at best. As the authorities closed the play after one performance, we will never know if Le roi s’amuse could have succeeded on the French stage at the time; however, the ensuing law suit that Hugo brought against the crown for freedom of speech (which he lost) made the play famous, and it became a best seller in printed form. Soon, a copy of the printed play found its way into Verdi’s hands.

Triboulet

Triboulet from Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse

What attracted Verdi to Hugo’s play was the character of the court jester, Triboulet, which Verdi thought to be an entirely original stage creature. Renamed Rigoletto and elevated to the title role in the opera that was moved from France to Mantua, Verdi fleshed out this court jester and made him as immortal as any character in opera can be. Rigoletto is much more than a tortured soul. Abused from childhood for his physical deformities, he is richly drawn and deeply human, passionate, willing to act, cunning, tortured, self-aware, and loving. He is a man of his time, when the rule of any Italian dukedom was taken by might, and when assassins offered their services to strangers in dark streets.

Today, Americans see vengeance at the scale depicted in this opera as an insane extreme. Most Americans, today, would view all acts of vengeance as yielding only evil fruit, injury upon injury, a never-ending cycle. This was not the view of Italians in the Renaissance, or in many other cultures in the world even today, where vengeance is ferocious and insatiable. The opera Rigoletto was, perhaps, one of the many influences that reshaped our perception of the dangers inherent in a hunger for vengeance, for Rigoletto will lose everything he holds dear in his vain attempt to get even.

What he loses is his daughter Gilda, his only child, the only creature on this earth who loves him, and the only thing he loves at all. Just home after a decade of convent training, barely sixteen, totally inexperienced, and infatuated with a student she met at mass, Gilda will sacrifice her life to save a seductive, hedonistic letch. Her winning presence, so perfectly drawn in a single duet and one, breath-taking aria (she has much more to sing in addition), has placed her among the most cherished of Verdi heroines.

Her self-sacrifice is hard for a 21st-century mind to accept, but when one realizes that she has been the duke’s mistress for several months before Rigoletto forces her to see the nature of her lover, and takes into account her youth, these make her action at least understandable, if heart breaking. But it is the heartbreak of Rigoletto that keeps this opera alive and in performance the world over.

Opera San José will offer six performances of a new production of Rigoletto, opening on September 6. It is advisable to order tickets earlier rather than later, as this Verdi favorite has always sold out in past opera San José productions.

Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini

Giacomo Puccini - 1908

Giacomo Puccini – 1908

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was the finest Italian composer after Verdi. Fittingly, his first successful opera, Manon Lescaut, premiered the week before Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, and it is Puccini who most nearly claimed the place in the hearts of the Italian people that had been held by Verdi, who is uniformly regarded as the greatest Italian composer.Puccini, born in Lucca, was brought up in less than financially secure circumstances, his father dying when the boy was just five years old; there were three sisters and a brother who was yet to be born when his father died. His mother brought up her children on her own by taking in washing and mending, assisted by her daughters while the boys, Giacomo and Michele, were educated as musicians. The Puccinis had been church musicians in Lucca for generations, and Puccini’s father was the music director at the cathedral, a position that would be kept open for Giacomo until he was old enough to take over. Luckily for posterity, Puccini’s mother set her sights on a wider career for her eldest son and managed to put together the money to send him to the Milan conservatory. His younger brother would also attend the same school.

Not the best student (it would later be discovered that Puccini suffered from diabetes), Puccini, nevertheless, composed well enough to attract the favorable attention of the Milanese press and music circles who upon his graduation encouraged him to compose an opera (Le Villi) that was produced primarily at the expense of the librettist, Ferdinando Fontana. This was enough of a success that Ricordi, the preeminent Italian publishing house, published the score and La Scala produced the opera after it was revised; La Scala commissioned two additional operas. Over the next eleven years Puccini composed three more operas, Edgar (not a success), La bohème, and Tosca (wildly successful). The next opera was to be Madama Butterfly.

It might come as a surprise to learn of a direct connection between Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which premiered in Milan in 1904, and 1870s San José, California. A continent and an ocean separate these cities, and in the 19th century that was considerably farther than it is today. However, after a bit of looking into the life of David Belasco, one finds the beginning of his story in the Bay Area, and a significant part of it took place in the Auditorium Theatre, 140 W. San Fernando Street. Belasco became a brilliant theatrical impresario who wrote and produced the play from which Puccini derived the opera. Born in San Francisco, he wrote, directed, produced, and acted in a number of plays just a few blocks from the California Theatre.

Belasco left the Bay Area for New York City in 1882, where he became America’s most successful theatrical impresario, and for thirty years was the most influential theatrical producer in the nation. He wrote or adapted more than 200 plays, two of which were made into operas by Puccini: The Girl of the Golden West (1905) and Madama Butterfly. The latter opened as a play in New York’s Harold Square Theatre in 1900 where it was a Broadway sensation.

Belasco adapted Madama Butterfly from John Luther Long’s short story of the same name. Long was told the basic narrative by his sister who lived for many years in Japan as the wife of a Methodist missionary. In Nagasaki, she learned of Cio-Cio-san and the American naval officer who married and abandoned her.

Belasco’s play was presented in New York as part of a double bill to prop up his failing Naughty Anthony, but Butterfly became the main attraction, not because of the effectiveness of the drama, but due to a technological scenic advance; it was the first play to utilize electric lighting. In the play, as in the opera, Cio-Cio-san, Suzuki, and Trouble wait from afternoon, through the night, and into dawn for Pinkerton’s arrival from Nagasaki harbor. Belasco abandoned footlights and used electric light and its color change and image projection capabilities to represent the changing light as day blazed into sunset, darkened to a night sky with stars, that, in turn, faded into the gray light of dawn. This was a marvel, and Madama Butterfly left New York for the sophisticated audiences of London, where it continued to impress at the Duke of York Theatre. As it would turn out, this uninterrupted lighting effect would not work in the opera.

The stage manager at the Duke of York knew Puccini, and telegrammed, urging him to see the play, suggesting it was very much suited to Puccini’s unique style. Having just opened the enormously popular Tosca in Rome, following tremendous successes with Manon Lescaut and La bohème, Puccini was looking for a subject that would be at least as effective as these. He came to London.

The suitability of the play was immediately obvious to Puccini, despite his inability understand English, and by 1902 Ricordi had negotiated the rights and Puccini’s favorite librettist, Luigi Illica (La bohème, Tosca), was studying both the play and Long’s short story. Though Ricordi was not enthusiastic and expressed his misgivings, the project continued and the opera was completed in two years. Madama Butterfly premiered at La Scala 110 years ago on February 17, 1904. It was a disaster. By all reports little of the opera was heard over the laughter, whistles, shouts, and catcalls. On February 18 Ricordi withdrew the opera.

Puccini was not discouraged, writing “I feel calm enough in the face of the shame of this commotion, because I feel I have written a living and sincere work that will surely rise again. I have that conviction.” Puccini, one of the more careful opera composers of his time, did recognize the work’s shortcomings. One of the principal problems was the division of the opera into only two acts, preserving Cio-Cio-san’s long wait through the night. This was too long for the La Scala audience.

Puccini, addressing dramatic problems he identified at the premieres of all of his operas except Turandot, revised often and with the objectivity of a surgeon. He immediately went back to work on Butterfly, expanding the tenor part, inserting a second intermission, and at Toscanini’s urging eliminating some of the most exotic harmonic and melodic constructions. In three months the opera was ready for a second production, which took place at Teatro Grande at Brescia, this time with Toscanini conducting, but this was not the last version. Puccini revised again for the Opéra-Comique in Paris, softening and sentimentalizing the drama for a French audience. That version became the standard, was published by Ricordi, and is the version most often used today. In this form it has become one of the most successful operas of all time.

Puccini would go on to compose, in addition to The Golden Girl of the West mentioned above, La rondine, Il trittico (consisting of three one-act operas, Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi), and Turandot (unfinished). Today, Puccini is a mainstay of American opera production, as La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot, make up much of the repertoire that audiences are most incline to attend.

Opera San José first produced Madama Butterfly in 1985 when Eilana Lappalainen performed the title role. Since then OSJ has produced Butterfly in 1996, 2002, and 2007, making the 2014 production the fifth time Madama Butterfly has appeared on our stage in thirty years. We are very pleased to revive our 2007 production with the same stage director, Brad Dalton, which we hold to be on of the highlights of our history of producing opera in San José.

What was I thinking?! Thoughts from Hansel and Gretel set designer Larry Hancock

Hansel's candy-cane cage

Hansel’s candy-cane cage

Often, I am asked, “Who came up with that design?” Of course, when we’re talking about the set or costumes or lighting, the expected answer is the set or costume or lighting designer, and it is. But at the same time, it isn’t, as opera is an enormously collaborative art form, and such ideas seldom come from just one mind. In the case of Opera San José, we first establish with the stage director, before we even negotiate a contract, the kind of opera we’re looking for, what period it should be set in (and it isn’t always the period indicated in the score, even at OSJ), what we can spend (the budget is not to be taken lightly), and how many weeks can be scheduled for the build and when the build must start.

Then, for both sets and costumes, the designer, using information (research) and requests from the stage director, begins making sketches. When the sketches have the nod from the stage director, work begins in earnest, measurements are made, color is applied, fabric swatches are found for costumes and for sets a scale model is created. Of course there’s a lot of back and forth in this process, technical problems are solved, materials are explored, lumber and steel are ordered, construction drawings are made, fabrics are found and purchased, and patterns are cut. A great many people are involved in the production of an opera, and we are not addressing the performers in this article. That would make an army.

In this article, I have been asked to share a little about the creation of the set, as for Hansel and Gretel, I designed the scenery, which is unusual (this is my 6th set design for OSJ over the past eight years) and I suppose has raised a little interest, probably because I’ve had such fun doing it, and have been so very impressed with the work of the entire scene shop. Our shop always does wonderful work, but when it’s your own design being realized, I have to admit, it’s a bit of a thrill, every time.

It was about a year ago when Hansel and Gretel stage director Layna Chianakas and I first sat down to talk through the opera. We were in the scene shop and hadn’t even discussed which edition of the score we would use, but both of us had images in our heads. The chief image in my head was a forest of enormous trees executed in watercolor. Layna could see a great deal more. She’s brilliant.

Scenic painting by Renee Jankowski, Liz Palmer, Robyn Winslow, Sophia Smith and Heather Peterson

Scenic painting by Renee Jankowski, Liz Palmer, Robyn Winslow, Sophia Smith and Heather Peterson

We both did a fair amount of research, and Layna found some wonderful images. One of them, a forest in Ireland, came to life as a huge watercolor forest. From there the first step was a matter of creating a cottage in that forest, which I originally painted as if built of timbers. Layna immediately recognized a lost opportunity to show the longtime poverty of this family and asked if the timbers could be large branches. The cottage was made of materials found in the forest and transformed into a hut with a sod roof. Renee Jankowski, our scenic charge artist, volunteered to repaint this piece for the set model, and she also repainted the model piece for gingerbread house the next week. So these two large pieces became a group effort, and are the better for it. Everything retained the quality of watercolor illustrations. From there it was a short step to make a peppermint stick cage, and the most amazing of all ovens.

Layna asked if the oven might look like a deep-sea fish with enormous, bared teeth. After a quick image search the perfect fish flashed on my screen. From that I made a paper model, and our props master, Lori Scheper-Kesel, used it to fashion a model from clay. Perfection! This is an oven with a mouth big enough to swallow a grown man. It has glowing eyes. Smoke rises from its chimney. Fearsome!

gingerbreadAThe gingerbread children, in this case a fence of them, were first made of plywood that was then upholstered and finally decorated with glistening candies and frosting. At this writing, the gingerbread house is being painted. I dropped in today as it was getting its first coat of color. It, too, will be glistening with gumdrops, cookies, and candy. A dentist’s nightmare!

bedOf all the props, the oven is the most astonishing, but the one everyone wants to take home, including me, is the bunk bed. All the furniture in the hut, the stools, bench, table, everything, was constructed to look as if made from things the family could find in the forest. Their whole lives depend on the forest. They make brooms from sticks and switches for a living. It isn’t much of a living. They go hungry much of the time, and even then berries from the forest stave off starvation.

It won’t do to look for symbolism in Hansel and Gretel, or a moral, or a message. It just isn’t that kind of tale. It’s about two children who get in trouble, mostly because the family is so poor and their mother feels so guilty that there is so little food, and tonight, no food at all. They are not sent into the forest to be gotten rid of, as in the Grimm tale, rather, they are sent to find berries. It comes as a complete shock to the mother that there’s a witch living in that forest. It’s a surprise for the children, too.

mother natureAWhen they realize they are lost and bed down for the night, they are protected by 14 angels, but these angels are rather like woodland sprites and one of them is Mother Nature. The costumes were brilliantly designed by Elizabeth Poindexter, and I stood for quite a few minutes today watching her execute the elaborate hand work these forest costumes require. But the great surprise is in the last scene, when the gingerbread house is revealed and the witch comes out.

The witch is always a wild combination, both comic and terrifying. Few things are as frightening as an insane person who intends to eat you, and this witch does not disappoint. In glamorous 18th-century paniers and a magnificent wig, this witch begins in such a charming way, so pleasant, until she claps Hansel in a cage and sets Gretel to fattening him up. And this witch grows less attractive over time, and when she goes on her wild ride, she does it on a pink Segway (loaned by Segway Santa Cruz), paniers swinging in the breeze!

By the way, I haven’t the mentioned lighting designs by Pamila Gray, as we won’t see this work for a couple of weeks yet. We begin moving into the theatre on October 30, but I do expect to see some lighting magic, as we’ve been talking about what glows in a forest at night…

While we’ve been having weeks of fun building sets, props, and costumes, the conductor, stage director, and singers have been working like Trojans, but they seem all smiles every time I drop in on rehearsals. There is something wonderful about working on very good music; it makes everything worthwhile. We’ve had two treats this fall, with Falstaff, which is a brilliant score, and now with the most performed opera by a German composer, Hansel and Gretel.

Now, we can only hope you will enjoy our realization of this wonderful adventure in the forest as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to the stage. I do believe children will certainly love it, and what better way to show a child how a story can spring to life through music and acting and all the elements of theatre? I encourage you to bring a few children with you to see these two clever children get themselves out of a pretty hot predicament.

Don’t go into the woods at night!

Scenic painting by Renee Jankowski, Liz Palmer, Robyn Winslow, Sophia Smith and Heather Peterson.

Scenic painting by Renee Jankowski, Liz Palmer, Robyn Winslow, Sophia Smith and Heather Peterson.

Don’t go into the woods at night! But Hansel and Gretel didn’t get the warning, and as the sun sets the woods become pretty scary with enormous, looming trees, a thousand twisting branches, and no clear path out. Larry Hancock, set designer for Hansel and Gretel, got the inspiration for this set from a real forest in Ireland, filled with sycamore, ash, and hazel, growing so thick that no undergrowth could survive in the gloom. We painted it warm with fall colors and cool with twilight blues and grays. The muslin on which the color has been painted is translucent, allowing the lighting designer, Pamila Gray, to control the glow of the scenery from behind as well as on the front. Renee Jankowski, the scenic charge artist, created magic, and the carpenters also helped achieve these twisted, opaque branches. The children’s cottage will fly in/out, and all the furniture in the cottage was made from real branches by Lori and Chris Kesel, from the bunk bed to the stools around the table. The candy cane cage where Hansel is held captive and the enormous oven, with a personality all its own, add to the colorful yet sinister atmosphere. All this is leavened with wonderfully colorful, whimsical costumes by Elizabeth Poindexter. In such a setting, the singers can only be inspired to bring this classic opera to life in a very special way that should delight both the grownups and the many children we are expecting to see in the California Theatre. Who knew Hansel and Gretel would be so much fun to produce? Everyone is having a wonderful time creating just the perfect touch, from the angel crowns (very wood sprite inspired) to the gingerbread house and gingerbread children.

The Fat Knight Rides Again!

 

Sir John Falstaff

Sir John Falstaff by Eduard von Grützner (1846–1925)

Elizabeth I, the virgin queen of England, commissioned a play about the exploits of the lazy, drunken, good for nothing (but a laugh) Sir John Falstaff, also known as Plump Jack. She commissioned it from the rogue’s creator, William Shakespeare. John Falstaff was first heard of in Shakespeare’s Henry IV (parts 1 and 2) and Henry V. This conniving, dishonorable old knight was attractive in Elizabethan England, when the formerly glorious concept of knighthood had tarnished its reputation during the Hundred Years’ War and chivalry had long been revealed for the quasi-religious sham it always was. John Falstaff was enormously attractive as a most engaging anti-hero, a knight whose irreverence for all things knightly set his audience reeling with laughter. Thus arrived this royal commission for a play featuring Falstaff, and Shakespeare satisfied his fun-loving queen with The Merry Wives of Windsor. No composer has had Verdi’s success at adapting Shakespeare for the opera stage. To recall a few, Otto Nicolai composed Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Gounod gave us a Roméo et Juliette, Ambroise Thomas composed a Hamlet, Benjamin Britten created A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Samuel Barber set Anthony and Cleopatra. There are many others, but none come to mind as readily as Verdi’s Macbeth, Otello, and the hilarious one, Falstaff, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Combining Shakespeare’s uncanny ability to reveal our most cherished values and sensibilities through comedy (Joss Whedon’s recent film version of Much Ado About Nothing is a great example of slapstick comedy that makes you weep with sorrow; I recommend it) and the brilliance of the finest Italian librettist, Arrigo Boito, and Verdi’s astonishing skills as an opera composer makes Falstaff one of the touchstones of Western culture, and it’s hilarious. It’s like getting high culture in your ice cream.

There are more gems in Falstaff than attending a performance can reveal. There are highly sophisticated musical forms; it opens in sonata allegro form (seldom found outside purely instrumental music) and closes with a rollicking grand fugue (as masterful as those of J.S. Bach, and funny). Verdi has given us a comic opera bookended by the two most revered pillars of abstract music, and he did it brilliantly while telling a story salted and peppered with jokes, wisecracks, gags, frustrated love scenes, and unforgettable people. Falstaff is a treasure, but it’s difficult to perform.

When a company announces Falstaff, you can be sure that years of planning and auditioning have taken place. Not many operas require a full cast of singers who are also very highly skilled musicians, but Falstaff does. Verdi began music rehearsals with his singers in November before a February opening. Most of his other operas began music rehearsals only a few weeks before opening. Opera San José (OSJ) has successfully assembled two crack casts of fine actors with beautiful voices, who will fly through these complex, rapid-fire ensembles like shooting stars.

This is not an opera that comes along every few years. It has been 13 years since OSJ last assembled such a cast. I recommend that you not let this chance pass you by and order your Falstaff tickets today!

Into the Fire: Verdi’s Il trovatore

Set model for Act 1, scene 1, of OSJ's production of Il trovatore. Design by Steven Kemp.

Set model for Act 1, scene 1, of OSJ’s production of Il trovatore. Design by Steven Kemp.

Only coincidence caused Il trovatore to have its world premiere on the very site where Giordano Bruno was imprisoned, waiting to be burned alive a few blocks away in the Campo de’ Fiori. Teatro Apollo, a late 18th-century theatre, built where the pontifical prison Tor di Nona once stood, was the largest theatre in Rome, which made it the logical choice for a Verdi premiere, but the subject of Il trovatore makes this connection to Bruno all the more intriguing.

It has been said that Il trovatore has a confusing, even implausible plot, but I strongly disagree. I think the confusion rises because this is not a simple love story. A hundred years of Hollywood movies have caused us to expect most everything to be, at its heart, a simple love story, so all on our own, we give the passionate love between Manrico and Leonora the central place, but that’s the public’s idea or a stage director’s idea, not Verdi’s or García Gutiérrez’s idea. Had Verdi called the opera The Gypsy instead of The Troubadour (which he considered), some confusion might have been avoided, but he stuck with the title of the Gutiérrez play (from which the libretto was drawn); no doubt expecting the great fame of the play to assist his own box office receipts.

Clearly, Verdi made the right choice, as Il trovatore had 230 separate productions in its first three years (who knows how many performances that amounted to?), and this Romantic, poetic, violently passionate opera, set in the brutal world of Spain’s late Middle Ages, has never fallen from grace with the public. For many years, Il trovatore was the most popular opera of them all, but despite its long popularity, the opera has had its skeptics.

Set model for Act 1, scene 2, of OSJ's production of Il trovatore. Design by Steven Kemp

Set model for Act 1, scene 2, of OSJ’s production of Il trovatore. Design by Steven Kemp

When I hear someone proclaim Azucena’s horrifying, unthinkable mistake as an impossible mistake, I think this person lacks empathy or imagination, or both. So I challenge you to imagine what Azucena is experiencing when she makes this horrible error, what her mental state must be, how insane she must have become while standing in front of that raging bonfire in which her mother was being burned alive, screaming. Azucena’s is not an impossible mistake; it is an insane mistake. I am convinced that Azucena never recovers her sanity and never loses her humanity, though what she plans and calculates and carries out is utterly inhuman. In the face of this incomprehensible horror, sensibility fails us and we turn our attention to the love story. But the inexorable tragedy in Il trovatore is not that of the lovers Leonora and Manrico, but that of the antagonists Azucena and di Luna. Leonora, the innocent bystander, is collateral damage, and Manrico is used as a weapon in Azucena’s private war.Neither Gutiérrez nor Verdi were fools; they laced the brutality of the Middle Ages with a love relationship that we can see and hear and understand. Wisely, the horror is left twenty years in the past and only reported to us, and even then it is reported from opposing points of view. We are not forced to see the actual burning, we merely listen to the haunted words that describe it.

The opera begins with the love story, which is woven through the piece into the last act. From the first scene to the end of the opera, this powerful love is palpably present. This is 15th-century Spain, replete with knights and castles and ladies in waiting, when political rivalries were settled by hand-to-hand combat, when wealthy ladies were able to seek refuge in convents, and when a lord could satisfy his thwarted sexual desire by means of abduction. In Il trovatore, there is a contest for the throne of Aragon, and two leaders of these battles, Count di Luna and Manrico, are in combat not only on the battlefield but also on the field of love.

In Leonora’s first aria, we learn that before this war erupted, Leonora, lady in waiting to the Princess of Aragon, encountered a mysterious knight who displayed no crest on his shield at the joust; she fell in love with him, and he with her. They begin to meet at night, in secret. But Count di Luna is also in love with Leonora and his jealousy is magnified by enmity in war. How unfortunate for all of them that Manrico’s true identity is unknown, not only to di Luna and Leonora, but even to Manrico, himself.

Like the famous Richard the Lionheart, Manrico is a troubadour knight, and he sings to Leonora in the night, to let her know he has come. Rashly, the lovers meet inside the castle wall. Everything is in keeping with a medieval romance until we meet Azucena, Manrico’s mother, or at least the woman who tells him she is his mother. With this dramatic role, we enter the world of the 19th-century Gothic opera, where the turnings of the plot introduce the unanticipated.

Verdi was at the top of his form when he composed Il trovatore, his twelfth opera. He had just opened Rigoletto in Venice, and soon after opening Il trovatore in Rome he would open La traviata, again in Venice. He was 40 years old, and while he was not as famous as he would become after these three operas were in performance all over the world, he had become powerful enough to demand the quality of singer he required to realize his musical intentions (at least in Rome, this wouldn’t be true for Traviata in Venice). It has been said often, perhaps Caruso was the first to say it, that all one needs to have a successful production of Il trovatore is the four most accomplished singers in the world. Though I find this an exaggeration (I have experienced engrossing performances from singers who, while excellent, were not the finest in the world). What one needs are a conductor, stage director, and singers who are absolutely committed to the drama, for in this opera the drama is paramount, and the singing, however brilliant, is at the service of this fast-moving, emotional thrill ride. When this happens, when everything is at the service of this tumbling kaleidoscope of human emotion, Il trovatore is one of the most effective operas ever conceived.

Verdi selected Salvadore Cammarano to develop the libretto from the Gutierrez play. Cammarano had already written thirty-eight libretti, three of them for Verdi, but perhaps he is best known for Lucia di Lammermoor, which he authored for Donizetti. (Unfortunately, Cammarano didn’t quite complete Il trovatore, though it is reported that the opera could have been composed from the work Cammarano completed, a few revisions were made by the Neapolitan poet Leone Emanuele Bardare.)

What Cammarano brought to Il trovatore was a keen intelligence, vast experience, and real poetry. He also brought a complete understanding and trust in the accepted forms of Italian opera that had been current for fifty years. It was Verdi’s desire to break those forms and forge new ground, and he did. The resulting tension between the poetic forms used by Cammarano and the daring, raw emotions Verdi had begun to explore in Rigoletto result in a wonderfully dramatic tension that originates in the dual, conflicting goals of text and music. A lesser composer could not have succeeded where Verdi created a masterpiece.

Opera San José’s physical production of Il trovatore is under the dramatically sure hand of Brad Dalton (Madama Butterfly, Così fan tutte, Anna Karenina, Idomeneo, Faust for OSJ), who for the past year has been working with the brilliant set designer Steven Kemp (Anna Karenina, Idomeneo, Faust) and the inspired costume designer Elizabeth Poindexter (Anna Karenina, La traviata, Tosca and many others). They have captured the essence of the late Middle Ages, rough stone, leather jerkins, armor of various kinds, and the necessity of anvils for the famous chorus. All this will be illuminated by David Lee Cuthbert (The Crucible, Le nozze di Figaro, Faust, and others).

Opera San José Music Director David Rohrbaugh will conduct, assisted by Andrew Whtifield. Rohrbaugh has conducted more than 67 operas in more than 600 performances, ranging from Mozart to Menotti, and including Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini on route, most recently he conducted our very successful Die Fledermaus. Whitfield, OSJ’s chorus master, has conducted two-dozen operas in more than 200 performances. Most recently for Opera San José, he conducted La voix humaine, Pagliacci, and Les pêcheurs de perles.

You can expect to experience a very exciting production of Verdi’s towering Il trovatore in the California Theatre this February.

The Last Waltz of the Gilded Age

“Perhaps he thinks I’m unfaithful; perhaps he thinks I love another, but I’m merely married!” -  Rosalinde
Act I:  Die Fledermaus

“Hofball in Wien” by Gause

As illogical as it is, the Zeitgeist of Western culture seems to take a perverse cue from our passing from one century into the next. Of course, there is no logical reason for this. The moon spins around the earth and the earth around the sun and the sun spins around the Milky Way, and the Milky Way spins around… you get it.  It’s all in one long series of circles with only our ever-changing view of the stars to mark the passage, but Europeans seem to make a change, and a radical change, just because a page is to be torn from a calendar.In the last decade of the 1400s Columbus sailed for India and changed the future of several continents forever, and at the same time Michelangelo changed sculpture and painting forever. In the last decade of the 1500s, a group of men in Florence created opera and changed the course of music forever; at the same time, Shakespeare was creating a new direction for drama and Caravaggio was turning perspective painting inside out; they changed theatre and art forever. By the end of the 1600s Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu unified France and established an absolute monarchy inherited by Louis XIV. In the last decade of the 1700s the French executed their king and queen and reversed the relationship between the governed and the government, changing all of Europe forever. And in the last decades of the 1800s there was one last sigh of the two-thousand-year-old idle class. It sighed to a waltz and died in a war.

The 20th century seems to have been predominantly occupied by a series of wars and financial disasters and that, unfortunately, didn’t change with the passing into the 21st century. However, the Internet did make its presence felt in the last decade of the 20th century and one might accurately predict that it changed the world forever. Today, at least from my perspective, it is difficult to conceive the lifestyle of the 19th-century upper crust, brittle with elegance, rife naughtiness, and numbed by ennui. While reading A Picture of Dorian Gray, I can’t imagine myself living that life, where the day began by pulling a cord to summon a valet who would arrive with tea and the morning’s invitations to dinners and balls, when afternoons were spent accepting the most promising of those invitations, and evenings were spent, if nothing else was on, dining at private clubs with intimate friends, attending the second act of an opera or play, and meeting friends for supper at midnight, before going home with one’s mistress(or dancer from the second act), only to begin it all again the next afternoon. There is no alarm clock to shatter the early morning, no traffic to suffer through on the way to the office, no office…  Truly, I can’t imagine it (or can’t admit to imagining it).

It is said that Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow were the very last gasp of that idle class, a last hurrah before catastrophe. Both are very fine examples of the lightness of this existence and of its bold extravagance that supported by investments, rents, or ruinous loans and lines of credit. But it was a house that would not stand. It was called a house of mirth by Edith Wharton (“The hearts of the wise are in the house of mourning; but the hearts of fools are in the house of mirth.” Ecclesiastes 7:4).

Composer Johann Strauss II

Baron von Eisenstein and his lovely young wife live in a house of mirth in Vienna, but no one would have guessed that at the time.It seemed that the dancing would go on forever. Die Fledermaus is entirely concerned with happy music and comic timing. Their lives kept in motion by the waltz and ruled by a new king, “Long live Champagne the First!”The Gilded Age was a giddy world for the robber barons, given over to pleasure. By the time Die Fledermaus was on the boards (1874) in Vienna, the conventions of marriage had become even less respected than they were in the 18th century. However, in the 19th century the Queen Victoria cast a long shadow and the conventions of matrimony were strictly observed, socially, and ignored privately, but only as long as the secret was closely kept. A husband or wife who was discovered on the wrong side of these conventions was cast out of society along with the children, and only enormous wealth could redeem their descendents. Marriage was in a display case, and on a marble and gilt pedestal that was just tall enough to put marital fidelity a bit out of reach in this rarefied world of dinner parties, grand balls, and midnight suppers. Courtesans and brothels were thriving.

We live in a different world. After the swinging 1960s, some of us are challenged by even the idea of adultery. This was not the case in 1870s Vienna, where the grand façade of Marriage stood as proudly as a bank on Wall Street today. In 1870s Vienna, the few who were banking on marital fidelity were thought naive. Thus Die Fledermaus, a comedy based on attempted adulteries, could and did have its world premiere on Easter Sunday. Rosalinde expresses a different worldview from ours when she remarks about her old lover: “Maybe he thinks I’ve been untrue; maybe he thinks I love another, but I’m merely married!”

Still, the book and lyrics are widely recognized as absolutely masterful, and so much so as to be crowned the epitome of the genre. In this salon farce, neither husband nor wife are truly blameless; both are up to their ears in sexual temptation and cover-up lies, rather like Lucy and Ricky, but with infidelity rather than an appearance at the Copacabana in the balance.

Opera San José’s 2004 production of Die Fledermaus at the Montgomery Theater. Photo by Bob Shomler.

It has been eight years since Opera San José last produced Die Fledermaus. We bid our farewell to the Montgomery Theater with those sentimental waltzes and bouncing polkas and all’s-well-that-end’s-well finale. Thinking that it’s high time to create a new production of Die Fledermaus for San José, we assembled a brilliant team to do just that. David Rohrbaugh, our music director, who has conducted dozens of Fledermaus productions, will be on the podium, keeping the myriad waltzes sparkling and lively.

Our stage director, Marc Jacobs, is making his OSJ debut with this production. He is widely experienced in musical theatre and is adept at both subtle and broad comedy, both of which weave through the entire texture of Die Fledermaus. There is not a single serious moment in this operetta, and Marc understands sight gags, high-kicking dances, and the surprising use of Mylar to add that sparkle unique to musical comedy. His approach to this project has been to please the audience, nothing more or less, and his first request was that we commission a new English version of the book. He wanted to go back to the German text of the world premiere, which he found engaging, comical, and never silly. That commission was given to David Scott Marley, who has previously created two modernized versions of Die Fledermaus in English, and who knows the original German book all but by heart. His English version of the original dialogue is crisp, dramatically well structured, and strips some of the accretions that have barnacled this timeless comedy over the past century. It is also efficient and to the point, which modern audiences will appreciate.

OSJ crew painting the Die Fledermaus show drop, designed by Charlie Smith.

Beginning in the von Eisenstein home then moving to a great Vienna ballroom, and ending in jail, this production traces Baron Gabriel von Eisenstein and his lovely wife from lovebirds to jailbirds by the end of the performance. And it’s all in good fun. The scenic design by Charlie Smith, who recently located to Sonoma from New York, and who is designing three productions for OSJ this season, was inspired by the great iron-and-glass flower conservatories of the 19th century. Furniture and ornament in the settings were inspired by the paintings of Gustav Klimt, with its swirling art nouveau decoration, which will be most evident in the ballroom scene.

Jacobs finds that Rosalinde, who recently retired from the stage to marry the baron, a well-to-do banker, is a bird in a gilded cage, thus the golden bars of the conservatory. He also believes that Rosalinde misses the creativity and adventure of her old life (and maybe her old lover, too), so that when the opportunity arises to get into a costume and perform a part, she instantly joins the fun. Unfortunately for her, she accepted the part without having read the “script”. Rosalinde is certainly in for an adventure; she is snared by this practical joke every bit as much as her husband.

Cathleen Edwards’s costume sketches for Die Fledermaus.

The joke is played out at a fabulous party in the Vienna home of a Russian, Prince Orlofsky, an enormously wealthy nineteen-year-old suffering from that malady particular to teenagers: I’ve-already-seen-it-all syndrome. This 19th century party scene is greatly dependent on summer ball gowns, and Cathleen Edwards has designed some really lovely things to float over the ballroom floor. Her costumes have been derived directly from art of the period and will shimmer when they need to, then bring us back to earth for the final scene, at least until Orlofsky and his entire party invades the jail for a bit of spontaneous fun and the final salute to champagne.

What 19th-century ball would be complete without waltzing? Not one. Choreographer Robyn Tribuzi will be working with dancers and chorus to create the beauty of the waltz as well as the vitality of the Thunder and Lightning Polka. Of course, some of these dancers will be a bit tipsy, but don’t blame them, blame it on too much champagne.

Of course, lighting will play an enormous part in creating the atmosphere that will support the lively, sparkling music, and Pamila Gray, with years of experience at lighting opera, musical comedy, and legitimate theatre ensure that you will always be aware of the emotional content as well as the dramatic direction as it develops during the course of each scene.

We have assembled a brilliant team of veteran theater-bloods who have been putting together this new production of Die Fledermaus for the past year, and as it begins to come together we are all very much looking forward to seeing this new production on stage, breathing fresh life into this classic musical comedy.

Why is that girl on stage dressed like a boy?

Former resident mezzo-soprano, Betany Coffland, as Idamante in Opera San José’s Idomeneo, photo credit: Pat Kirk, 2011

Opera San José: If you happened to see Opera San José’s productions of Idomeneo or Faust last season you might be pondering this very question, so we asked General Manager Larry Hancock to offer his insights on the evolution of trouser roles, roles that refer to any male character that is sung by a female singer, most often a mezzo soprano.  Opera audiences are asked to suspend disbelief and accept the character as male even if the singer is not, but how did the practice begin? According to Larry, we have to go back a few hundred years…

Hancock: Sexual ambiguity was rampant in opera for its first two hundred years. Opera began its history when Catholic churches were maintaining choirs with men who had been surgically altered to preserve their treble voices (women were not allowed to sing at mass, and it must have seemed a shame to lose closely trained and gifted boy sopranos just because they were turning into teenagers.) At any rate, Italy was entirely at ease with male sopranos and altos. It was then no stretch for these beautifully trained singers to make the short step from cathedrals to theatres and take on the roles of adolescent males as well as females of all ages. Except in France, where mutilating boys was thought horrific, castrati became the rock stars of the Baroque all over Europe. Even Baroque heroes sang in the treble range, from Orlando to Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great to Nero.

In modern times, Marilyn Horne and other important mezzo-sopranos brought these roles originally sung by castrati back to the stage.

(Marilyn Horne sings the title role in Vivaldi’s Orlando furiouso, San Franciso Opera, 1989)

Today we have a large number of countertenors (falsettists, not castrati), such as David Daniels, Brian Asawa, Terry Barber and many others, who are popular in the Baroque repertoire.

This practice of trouser roles has come down to modern audiences not only in Baroque operas but in many 19th-century French operas, and some others, as well. To mention a few, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro features a mezzo-soprano in the role of fourteen-year-old Cherubino, while Gounod’s Faust features a mezzo-soprano as the adolescent Siébel.

(Frederica von Stade as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, The Glyndebourne Festival in 1973)

Mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos as “Octavian”

The same is true of Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, which features a mezzo-soprano as Octavian.

Opera San José’s upcoming production of Johann Strauss’s operetta, Die Fledermaus, features a mezzo-soprano in the role of the oh-too-bored teenager, Prince Orlofsky. I have a suspicion that the reason for the 19th-century pants roles was more about seeing a woman’s legs than the quality of her voice… but that’s just an opinion.

Opera San José: And what about contemporary opera companies like Opera San José continuing the tradition of casting female singers in male roles?

According to writer Karen Finch of Suite101.com the reasons are largely historical:

Where the role was originally played by a castrato, the options are to cast a woman dressed in male costume, use a countertenor, or to drop the pitch of the role by an octave and cast a male tenor. Using the latter choice means that the dynamic and color of the role changes considerably. Countertenors are comparatively rare, so casting them is not a common solution. Using a woman offers the most authentic sound that is closest to the castrati of the time.

A second practice dates to the mid 1800s, when it was common to write leading male roles for high voices. This was after the decline of the castrati in the early 1800s, so it is thought that these parts were always intended as pants roles.

The other common tradition, which continues into contemporary operatic composition, is the casting of women as children and young adolescents, so again these parts were always intended to be played by women.

Regardless of tradition, trouser roles continue to be both a wonderful opportunity and challenge for female opera singers.  We hope you will suspend disbelief and join us for Die Fledermaus opening November 10th as resident mezzo-soprano, Nicole Birkland, and affiliate artist, Rebecca Krouner, alternate in one of the most famous trouser roles, Prince Orlofsky.

 

Some Thoughts on The Pearl Fishers – Part III

Another Pearl Fishers challenge for a California audience is an absence of cultural awareness. Hindu thought and religious practice was a complete unknown for these Parisian librettists. Today, Indians chuckle throughout this opera at such a brilliant display of perfect ignorance. Clearly, their goal was not an accurate picture of a distant culture. The opera was modeled on Spontini’s La vestale (ancient Rome!) and Bellini’s Norma (ancient Gaul!!). The Pearl Fishers was not exactly a National Geographic special. The goal was to create an idealized exotic atmosphere, put the trouble in paradise, and invent an escape route, much like Hollywood films of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s (you get the drift). This approach is nothing new.

Now we come to the best-friends-forever relationship between Zurga and Nadir. In the 19th century, close, affectionate, friendships were highly prized, and especially so as friendships between the sexes were virtually impossible. During the course of the 20th century, especially in this country, such warm, platonic friendships have all but disappeared. We have a completely different perception of friendship, and our closest friends would more than likely appear as mere acquaintances to young adults of the 19th century. Their friendship, from our vantage point, displayed surprisingly effusive language and affection.

Last of all we come to Leïla: a woman with a past, a woman with a secret, a woman in love. What could be more intriguing than this lovely, veiled woman, the 19th-century equivalent of a vestal virgin? Every man in the village, and the women, too, must have been wondering what she looked like, where she came from, what made her special, and whether or not she could keep the dark forces of evil at bay while they were swimming with sharks. Members of the Jockey Club must have been wondering at least some of the same things from their box seats in the Théâtre Lyrique.

Leïla is listed in the score as a priestess. There are Hindu priests and priestesses, past and present, but I wonder if any of them tried to keep malevolent spirits at bay through song. However, in an idealized island paradise imagined by 19th-century Parisians, this couldn’t have been much of a stretch.

The trick to enjoy The Pearl Fishers is to enter into this lush tropical scene with the hope of hearing one of the most lavishly beautiful scores in the repertoire. Number after number is simply beautiful, deliciously beautiful, enchantingly beautiful. The choruses are in turn lively, dreamy, overwhelming, distant, and spectacular, with rich harmonies and effective rhythms. The duets are immortal, and the arias are stunning.

So, if you can forgive the cultural ignorance of the librettists and go with the flow of the plot, you might find that The Pearl Fishers is one of the most rewarding evenings you have ever spent in a theatre. We are doing all in our power to ensure that experience for you, and we do have quite a bit of experience at succeeding with The Pearl Fishers.

Thanks to Kirti Venkatasawmy (my French tutor) and Vijay Vaidyanathan (for his insightful comments).

Some Thoughts on The Pearl Fishers – Part II

Place_du_Chatelet

The Théâtre Lyrique (centre right), Paris, where The Pearl Fishers received its first performance on September 30, 1863.

Opéra comique is a specific form of theatrical entertainment. It was firmly established during the 18th century, and by the time Bizet began composing it had deeply entrenched traditions and specific audience expectations. It was light entertainment (it was not Carmen). It consisted of consistently charming music, a bit of comedy, a little romance, a confusion or obstacle that threatened the romance, and a happy ending that indicated an impending fairy-tale marriage. American musical theatre had much the same expectations until West Side Story, which also did poorly at the box office in its initial run, though not nearly so bad as Carmen.Bizet was among those who thought opéra comique needed reform. In the opinions of these young librettists and composers, opéra comique had become calcified, predictable, boring. Carmen was meant to shake up that complaisant world, inject it with excitement, bring opéra comique into the 19th century. The 19th century wasn’t quite ready. The problems with The Pearl Fishers were subtler than those of Carmen, and there were mixed opinions about Pearl Fishers. All of Paris was unanimous in their abhorrence of Carmen, but for Pearl Fishers, audiences thought one thing, musicians another, and it seems that all but one reviewer disagreed with both of them. Berlioz was the dissenting voice; he praised Bizet’s Pearl Fishers.

The Pearl Fishers was first conceived as an opéra comique, which meant spoken dialogue, charming music, a chaste romance, and a happy ending. The thing that would set this opera apart was the exotic setting (ultimately Ceylon). Conceived as a perfumed island paradise where palm trees swayed beneath a starry sky surrounded by an azure sea, it was to be the very opposite of naturalism. The obstacle to the marriage of the soprano and tenor was supposed to be easily overcome: no undue suffering. A lot of this changed, perhaps because of the development of the libretto in Act III, when the librettists decided to set fire to the village. For any thinking person, this would result in the death of the baritone, who set the fire when the whole village was already thirsting for blood. This changed a lot, but not quite everything. There were still palm trees and starry skies, and a chaste romance, but now the music had to embody an execution and a rescue.

Bizet rose to the challenge with choral music of vengeful menace, fury heightened by frenzy. This was not an ending that anyone at the time would have expected, and Bizet prepared this last chorus with a gradually increasing sense of anger and peril. Thus the critics’ accusation of being under the influence of Verdi, whose operas were seen as too violent, too tragic. Also unwelcome was the new music of Wagner, which was too thick, too complex, too powerful, not cheerful, too long. Tannhäuser caused a riot at its Paris premiere in 1861, and Bizet had just gone on public record as lauding Wagner as a composer whose work should be known and understood.

Before The Pearl Fishers opened, Bizet decided (I haven’t found his reason yet) to replace the expected spoken dialogue with sung recitative. This gave the opera a sense of through-composed music and blurred the edges of discrete musical numbers, which may have led some to think of Wagner; however, more than anything Bizet composed in The Pearl Fishers, I suspect his praise for the despised Wagner is what garnered so much sharp criticism. Still, despite the fact that the opera was no longer an opéra comique, it still retained much of that scent and atmosphere, and perhaps threw the reviewers into confusion. The public was not confused; they approved enthusiastically and called Bizet to the stage for a bow (which the critics didn’t approve of at all). The opera ran for eighteen performances (perfectly respectable), alternating with The Marriage of Figaro.

So much for the opening, now on to a social consideration…

Stay tuned for the final installment of Larry’s thoughts on Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers