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


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

Some Thoughts on The Pearl Fishers: Part I

Georges BizetThis might seem a bit random, but as I have been reading about the life of Bizet and the creation, premiere, and reception of his first full-length opera, it has occurred to me that there are a few stumbling blocks that could compromise the modern viewer’s full enjoyment of this opera. If some of these confusions could be untangled in advance, they might allow audience members to enter more fully into the 19th-century esthetic, action, and music of The Pearl Fishersand enhance the enjoyment of that experience.

Bizet’s musical legacy hinges on one opera: Carmen. Composers will tell you that Carmen is expertly, even brilliantly constructed, and musicologists will point out that it is the very first of a new kind of opera (referred to as naturalism, which was spawned by literary realism in France, and called verismo in Italy), and it led to Pagliacci, Cavalleria rusticana, La bohème, Louise, and many, many others, arguably even Tosca. This approach began in 1840s France as a literary movement that championed the depiction of life as led by ordinary people. It accepted and illustrated the idea that heredity and social conditions, such as material and emotional want, have real impact on character and the decisions one makes because life itself limits and directs one’s choices. Balzac, Zola, Murger, and Mérimée (Mérimée wrote the 1845 novella on which Bizet based his 1875 Carmen) pioneered this new way of looking at society and individuals. They turned their attention away from palaces, castles, and knights in shining armor toward slums, brothels, and even Spanish Gypsies. That Bizet’s reputation entered the 20th century based on only one opera is due to the very constraints that were illustrated in the novels that began this movement.

Bizet lived in Paris during the mid 19th century. France was still experiencing sporadic, even violent, political unrest that had been unleashed by the French revolution. He would fight in the Franco-Prussian War, when the Prussians laid siege, shelled, starved, and occupied Paris. He would gather up his new wife, Geneviève Halévy, and retreat to the countryside during the Paris Commune, when angry dissidents took over the seat of French government and set fire to major parts of the city. Art does not thrive in times like these, times of financial collapse and general upheaval. In these conditions, costly art forms flounder and opera companies die.

Bizet began something in the neighborhood of thirty operas during the course of his 36 years (he composed his first staged work at age 18 and his last at age 35), but almost all of them were abandoned. Most were thwarted by the financial problems of the companies that had begun these projects. Several of the operas that were completed did not make it to an opening because of the financial insecurity of the producing companies. The Théâtre Lyrique, the one opera company in Paris that produced the work of up-and-coming composers, closed forever in these years, and the Opéra-Comique was shut down immediately after Carmen. In truth, it was the enormous box office failure of Carmen that brought about the demise of the Opéra-Comique, and the reasons for this failure also apply, to some extent, to the poor reception of The Pearl Fishers by the French press.

Stay tuned for Part II, where Larry discusses the specific form of theatrical entertainment known as Opéra-Comique and how it affected opera audience expectations during Bizet’s time.

Gounod’s Redemption of Faust

Polish opera singer Edouard de Reszke (1853-1917) as Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust

“Well, doctor, what do you want of me? 
Let us see; speak! 
Do I frighten you?”

Méphistophélès needs no introduction, and no one need tell you that should you see him coming, it’s best to run the other way. Faust stood his ground and lived to regret it…at least in some versions of the story.

Johann Georg Faust, a graduate of Heidelberg University, lived in Germany between 1480 and 1540. He was famed for his claim to be Satan’s son-in-law. He was famous for many other things as well, most of which were rather unsavory. It wasn’t long before his exploits at fortune-telling, alchemy, and magic were chronicled by an anonymous author and immediately published as Historia, von D. Johann Faustus in 1587. Within five years, this book was translated into English by another anonymous writer known only as P.F., Gentleman.  In short order, the brilliant playwright Christopher Marlowe added his version, The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, and this seems to be the most widely received of the versions then available. The adaptation that captured the world’s attention, however, was the great theological and philosophical work, Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (pronounced ger-tuh), which has held sway over readers since 1832, when Part Two (the final installment) was completed. This dense and far-ranging argument about the condition of mankind, our relationship with God, and the possibility and conditions of our salvation became almost holy writ in Germany, and has been studied in universities across the world for more than a century. In all these years, it has inspired innumerable other books, plays, films, and operas based on the imagined life of a Medieval necromancer.

The version of Faust that has had the widest audience, however, is not the revered play of Goethe’s pen (though that is still the most performed play in Germany), but a less philosophical and perhaps more entertaining opera based on Goethe’s Part One: Gounod’s Faust. In the 24 years between its first performance at the famed Palais Garnier in 1869 (ten years after the Théâtre Lyrique world premiere) and Gounod’s death in 1893, the opera had become the most performed work in that house. Faust was also the opera chosen to open the Metropolitan Opera in 1883, and has achieved well more than 700 performances there; it has more than a thousand in Paris.

Goethe’s great masterwork, which has held the world’s attention for so long, ends differently from Marlowe’s play, which ends with Faust going to Hell as a trophy for Méphistophélès. Goethe took the opposite direction: a forgiving Gretchen (Marguerite in the opera) prays on Faust’s behalf, and at the moment that he should be consigned to perdition, God forgives him. Except for the ruin of Gretchen, Faust used the power of Hell to do good works on earth, releasing him from his bargain with Méphistophélès; he was redeemed.

Gounod’s opera does not dabble in this controversy over damnation vs. salvation; rather, it does all it can to meet public expectations and be entertaining. He was not trying to make a reputation on philosophy or scandal, but still, Gounod was dealing in a subject that can spark all manner of reactions and responses. The age-old “deal with the devil” story takes on a particular aura, no matter how the author attempts to avoid controversy.

Marguerite's Garden
Marguerite’s garden in Act 3 of the opera Faust by Gounod as presented in the original production at the Théâtre Lyrique on 19 March 1859. Set design by Charles-Antoine Cambon and Joseph Thierry.

In truth, Faust is not a man of ill intention; he might be better described as foolish rather than evil, a hot-blooded teenager eager to have his pent-up desires satisfied rather than a calculating villain out to hurt others. Indeed, he does seduce an attractive and innocent young woman, and then he leaves her when his desire is sated. Once out looking for his next exploit, he does not think to inquire after her condition. He doesn’t think at all until she is brought to mind after all possible damage has been accomplished, other than her complete destruction. There is nothing admirable in that, but nothing malicious, either – just blind stupidity. Stupidity can do enormous damage, but is it evil? When Faust does sense (through divine inspiration) that all is not well, he insists on coming to the rescue and Méphistophélès is powerless to stop him. Once with Gretchen, seeing the disaster he has brought down upon her, he does his best to save her life. He fails, but not for lack of good intentions and real effort. So, is he beyond redemption? That becomes the question in every Faust, even in Gounod’s romantic 19th-century opera. Goethe posited that those of good intention, who strive to do good, are eligible for salvation; Gretchen forgave Faust, so why shouldn’t the creator of the universe forgive him, too? Much like the deathbed confession and true regret that saves the soul of a Roman Catholic, or the transforming moment of conversion when Jesus is recognized as the Christ, which saves the soul of a Baptist, Faust is forgiven in Goethe’s version. Is this divine justice? It may be, but this isn’t why Gounod’s operatic adaptation has been so popular for so very long. This popularity rests in the richly beautiful, sensuous music.

French opera of the mid to late 19th century is particularly blessed with stunning music. Carmen, The Pearl Fishers, Manon, Werther, Thaïs, Roméo et Juliette, and so many others, are among the most pleasing to hear of all operas. Even those that don’t have librettos of the stature of Faust are still richly rewarding purely through the quality of the music. In Gounod’s Faust, the most moving music is, perhaps, the love duet between Faust and Marguerite at the midpoint of the work, but the most rousing is the Soldiers’ Chorus in Act III. That which is most transcendent is the final trio between Marguerite, Faust and Méphistophélès at the very end of the opera, which is undoubtedly among the most affecting ensembles in all opera.

The staging of Faust is being realized by director Brad Dalton, who brought you our most recent productions of Idomeneo, Anna Karenina, Così fan tutte, and Madama Butterfly, all of which were superior productions with surprisingly fresh interpretations that were both visually striking and dramatically powerful. Steven C. Kemp (Anna Karenina and Idomeneo) has aided Dalton in bringing this vision to the stage, and his designs are arresting. David Lee Cuthbert (The Crucible, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Marriage of Figaro, Eugene Onegin) will design the lighting. Costumes will be provided by Malabar, and are based on clothes of the 16th century.



A new life for La traviata

There are advantages and disadvantages of co-productions. The biggest advantage is cost sharing; when two companies pool financial resources, much more can be accomplished. In the case of the Opera San José/Opera Santa Barbara co-production of Verdi’s La traviata, a level of grandeur was achieved that neither company could have afforded on its own. Co-production disadvantages are usually about artistic vision, and fortunately for this project, José Maria Condemi, who is directing La traviata for Opera San José, is the artistic director of Opera Santa Barbara. If there were arguments over artistic goals, José Maria had all of them with himself!

José Maria wanted to have a bit of a new look for La traviata, and in his research he discovered that the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889 as part of an enormous exposition to demonstrate the great strides made by France since the overthrow of the monarchy, and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Revolution.

Eiffel Tower

Construction of the tower, October 14 1888 – March 31, 1889; La Tour Eiffel, by Roland Barthes

In 1889, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest man-made structure in the world. It was the chief emblem of an age of unfettered optimism and it dominated the Paris skyline. To have this mighty symbol juxtaposed against the slow, inescapable destruction of one young woman, of her hopes, her most sacred longings, and finally her very life, creates a visual illustration of how the merrymakers continue their romp through the salons of Paris while she is left behind to die.

The tower, under construction, is visible through the window of Violetta’s salon in Act I and seen completed through Flora’s salon window in Act III. This also gives an indication of the passage of time and the impression that both of the women live on the butte of Montmartre, overlooking the city below. This area of Paris is still known for its liberal morality and was the home of many of the greatest artists, composers, writers, and thinkers of that time, the very people who would have populated Violetta’s salon.

The sets were designed by Erik Flatmo, who also designed Eugene Onegin, The Magic Flute, and Tosca for Opera San José in past seasons. Erik has given us a stylish, large, 19th-century-inspired residence with classic paneling and dull-mirrored surfaces. It readily adapts to the opera’s four scenes: Violetta’s Paris salon in Act I, the country house she shares with Alfredo in Act II, Flora’s elegant apartments in Act III, and finally in Act IV, Violetta’s Paris bedroom, where her belongings are being readied for auction. Elizabeth Poindexter, whose extensive list of productions for Opera San José most recently added the West Coast premiere of David Carlson’s Anna Karenina, designed the luxurious costumes of the famous courtesan and her elegant entourage.

The Bridesmaid
The Bridesmaid by J. Tissot, 1883;

When I heard that José Maria wanted La traviata set in 1889, I was pleased to think that we would save costs by utilizing costumes from Anna Karenina, which is in the same period by the same designer; I was soon disabused of my foolish delusion. The fashions of 1889 were in a period of transition between the height of the bustle in 1883 and the slimmed down and daring silhouette of the “hourglass” that dominated the 1890s. The 1880s were a time of heavy brocades, lace, ribbon, false and real flowers, and richly draped fabrics. Going against tradition, Violetta will make her first appearance on our stage in yellow lace.

Chris Maravich, San Francisco Opera’s production lighting designer, will design lighting for La traviata. The only other time Chris has designed for Opera San José was for Mozart’s The Magic Flute in 2008, when José Maria was the stage director. After many years working together on the direction staff of the San Francisco Opera, José Maria and Chris have become a great team.

In all, we have an enormously gifted, experienced and resourceful creative team for this co-production of La traviata, and I feel certain that these visual elements combined with the sure hand of Conductor David Rohrbaugh, Assistant Conductor Joseph Marcheso and Chorus Master Andrew Whitfield will bring to San José a very satisfying production of one of the great operas of all time, Verdi’s La traviata.

La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation.

A Girl That Was Led Astray

La Dame aux camélias, by Édouard Viénot (b. 1804)

At the age of twenty-three, Rose Alphonsine Plessis was buried, under a slightly different name, in the Paris Cemetery of Montmartre, after a years-long battle with tuberculosis. By the age of twenty, she had reached the height of the Parisian demimonde and was absolutely famous in Paris; she is more widely known of today than she ever was in life, but she is not remembered because of literary, scientific, political, or academic achievements. She remains famous, worldwide, 165 years after her death, for gifts of a more transient nature. During her brief stay on earth she was noted for her beauty, intelligence, sensitivity, wild extravagance, and her ability to attract and hold the attentions and financial support of numbers of very wealthy men, and not necessarily one at a time.

Alphonsine Plessis is among the first of the 19th-century grandes horizontales, courtesans who were able to maintain lavish lifestyles and who influenced the dress and tastes of cultured women while inspiring the hopes of pretty shop girls. After her death, hosts of the Paris beau monde turned out for the auction of her worldly goods, necessitated by the staggering debts she left behind. Charles Dickens was in attendance and reported, “One could have believed that [she] was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so deep was the general sadness.”

Maria Callas as Violetta Valéry, 1955 (La Scala)

The woman buried at the base of Montmartre is listed among the notables there as Alphonsine Plessis, though she called herself Marie DuPlessis (affecting noblesse), but she became internationally famous under other names: Marguerite Gautier, in the novel La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils (son of the famous Alexandre Dumas who gave us The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo); Camille, played by Greta Garbo, and many others, in the film of the same name; but most of all she is known as Violetta Valéry in Verdi’s seemingly immortal opera, La traviata.

She was born in Normandy on January 15, 1824. Her father was the son of a prostitute and a priest. He owned a draper’s shop, and was a gambler, a drunk and a brute. He married Marie-Louise Deshayes who came from more distinguished stock, but who made a bad marriage. They had two daughters, Rose and a younger sister, but eventually their mother left them with her cousin and fled the brutality of her husband. When Rose was eight years old her mother died and her father continued to leave the girls with various other relatives who had farms nearby. On one of these farms, when she was twelve years old, Rose was allegedly raped or seduced by a young farmhand. When this was discovered Rose was returned to her father.

Within the year, her father decided he was wasting resources sending Rose out as a laundress and he sold her outright to a bachelor of seventy who used her for a year then sent her back to her father. Not wishing to be responsible for her further, he sent Rose to live with relatives in Paris. Soon she would take cheap lodgings of her own in the Latin Quarter and make a meager living as a shop girl, but by the time she was sixteen, she discovered a more lucrative livelihood. She was unusually pretty with porcelain skin, black hair, enormous dark eyes, and was graced with a quick, intelligent wit and charming candor. She educated herself, improved her reading and writing skills, kept up with current events, and generally made herself more interesting for her clients. One of her greatest skills was to appear sincerely and blushingly innocent.

She began to use the name Marie and picked up a number of lovers who came from the highest ranks of French society. Among them were the duc de Guiche-Gramont, the comte Edouard de Perregaux, and at the end of her life, even Franz Liszt. When she was twenty, she was taken up by the elderly and very wealthy comte de Stackelberg, who had been the Russian ambassador to Vienna. He kept her in high style, paying her bills, importing her carriage horses from England, and providing boxes in the best theatres in Paris, but she remained in need of deeper emotional connection.

Boulevard de Madeleine, Winter by Edouard Cortes (1882-1969)

Her apartment on the elegant boulevard de Madeleine (reference to Mary Magdalene to whom Marie was particularly devoted) was filled with 18th-century furniture, paintings, silks and her modest collection of 200 books. Here, many of the brilliant minds of France gathered at her dinner parties, including Eugène Sue, Honore de Balzac, Theophile Gautier, and of course, Alexandre Dumas, fils.

She met Dumas when they were both eighteen. The illegitimate son of one of the most beloved and famous French authors, he was not in the running to become one of her intimates until he was more established. It was two years before they established a more lasting liaison, which lasted just one year, as the struggling writer was unable to contribute sufficiently to her enormously expensive lifestyle. It is reported that her day-to-day living expenses were in excess of 100,000 francs annually, and this does not include clothes, carriages, servants, housing, or travel.

Necklace worn by Callas in La traviata; from the touring exhibition, Maria Callas & Swarovski: Jewels On Stage

While they were together her tuberculosis was growing obviously worse and he insisted that she leave her frantic life in Paris and live quietly with him in the countryside. She did this, but couldn’t be satisfied with such a quiet life and soon returned to Paris. As her illness continued to make itself evident, and she feared for her financial security, she accepted a proposal of marriage from her old beau, the comte de Perregaux. They were married in London, but it was a marriage in name only and soon she was back in Paris, where the marriage was not legal, as Perregaux had not published the banns. Their last transaction would occur after her death when he had her body moved to a more fitting gravesite.

Just five months after her passing, Dumas published La Dame aux camélias, which was published in a press run of 12,000 copies, all of which sold, but it was not until Dumas adapted the book into a drama that the work found its audience.  In that audience was Giuseppe Verdi and his then mistress Giuseppina Strepponi. La traviata would premiere in Venice just two years later.

Grave site of Alphonsine Plessis, 15th January 1824 – 3rd February 1847

Today, though there have been a large number of films based on the life of Rose Alphonsine Plessis, it is as Violetta Valery that this young woman is known and celebrated. Obviously, this isn’t because of her charms, but the many charms of this masterful score, which takes full advantage of the allure of its heroine and the finest examples of vocal expression of the nineteenth century.

We are pleased to present this new production of La traviata for our 28th Season. It was among the first operas that our company produced in the 1980s, and with each reincarnation, audiences continue to embrace La traviata as one of the most cherished evenings in an opera theatre.

La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation

Pagliacci: The darker side of betrayal

(Editor’s note: Following on the theme of lost love in Poulenc’s passionate La voix humaine, the second one-act opera in our November double-bill, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, will take us through an exploration of the darker side of betrayal.)

Leoncavallo and his dog, 1894

His life was surely eventful, and tended toward the extremes. Commissioned by kings, starved in the streets of Paris, hailed as the most promising composer of his generation, damned as shallow and litigious, Ruggiero Leoncavallo knew it all first hand, but all we know of him is Pagliacci.

Born in Calabria, in the far south of Italy to well-to-do and socially prominent parents, Leoncavallo had an excellent education and all the advantages that Naples could afford, which were many. His father was a judge and his mother, the namesake of Virginia Donizetti and the goddaughter of the famous composer, was a painter. Theirs was a cultured and well-educated family; Art was revered in their household.

As a student at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Naples, where Donizetti had been the director, Leoncavallo was able to attend performances at the famed Teatro San Carlo as well as the three other opera houses in that ancient and wealthy royal capital. He began life with advantages that Verdi, Donizetti, and many other composers couldn’t dream of.

After completing his course requirements in Naples, Leoncavallo attended the prestigious University of Bologna where he studied writing and literature. In Bologna, he was welcomed into the cream of society, not least because of his unusual accomplishment as a pianist. He composed for and performed at the most distinguished salons, and began (though never completed) a lifelong project inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle on significant moments and persons in Italian history. Only the first of the three operas was composed and performed, I Medici, which, well received for a time, soon disappeared. He also composed a La bohèmethat had initial success but was later eclipsed by Puccini’s brilliant work derived from the same material. Leoncavallo also wrote a number of popular operettas, which have disappeared from the repertoire over time, along with his numerous songs. The one opera that has remained, still one of the most performed operas in the standard repertoire, is Pagliacci.

Les buveurs d’absinthe (The Absinthe Drinkers) by Jean-Francois Raffaëlli, c.1881

In Paris, Leoncavallo became acquainted with Émile Zola, who, along with Honoré de Balzac and Prosper Mérimée, established a new form in French literature referred to as realism, in which the lives of the lower and middle classes were depicted, and in ways that seemed at the time grippingly, even shockingly true to life. Bizet’s Carmen was the very first opera derived from this literary genre, based upon Mérimée’s novella. Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana was the first of this style written in Italian, where the genre was called verismo; Pagliacci was the second.

Pagliacci begins with a prologue, sung by a baritone who most often enters the stage in front of the main drape, during which an explanation of this radically different style of opera is explained; it serves as a warning to the audience.

When you look on us, dressed in costumes and tinsel,
Ours are human hearts, beating with passion,
We are men like you, for gladness or sorrow,
It is the same broad heaven above us,
The same wide, lonely world before us!

This is an invitation for the audience to enter into a world that is immediate and familiar, rather than a world of imagined fantasy. Instead of seeing knights such as Lohengrin or Parsifal, or troubadours such as Manrico or Blondel, you are forewarned that you will be seeing individuals much like yourself, individuals who bleed when they are pricked. The dramatic force of Pagliacci lies as much in its tenacious determination to give us a story about very human individuals as it is in its richly, powerfully expressive music.

Stage Director Cynthia Stokes (who makes her debut at OSJ with this production) feels very strongly that the story of Pagliacci is universal. This unfortunate situation is as old as humanity and happens in all cultures at all times. To help remove the distance, to take the action out of a specific time or local, she has asked for a very clean, spacious setting that includes nothing that will define place or time. Pearl-gray geometric shapes, a ramp, an altar-like platform, a curved wall, and a blue horizon to indicate the sea, is all there is until the addition of the backdrop for the commedia dell’arte play. The costumes, however, are true to the clothes of Calabria at the turn of the 20th century. In this nebulous world the clown’s heartbreak spans time, as it could be happening anywhere at any time.

(Editor’s note: If you are interested in exploring the world of verismo opera, the Naxos Music Library has an online playlist of arias in the genre; a site subscription is required.)

The Wages of Love

It seems that passionate love is hardwired into the human condition, and that each of us must sooner or later go through the ecstasy of a love that is destined to die too soon. Even sainted monks and nuns have written about their experience of an overpowering, passionate, reciprocal love (in their case, with Christ), eventually followed by a ‘dark night of the soul,’ during which there is a heart-rending sense of abandonment and paralyzing loss.

Psychologists tell us that when we are in love we feel that love will never end, and when we are not in love we feel we will never again know love. They assure us that these feelings are chemically induced, and if we would just eat some chocolate…

Our next production, a double bill of La voix humaine, composed by Francis Poulenc to a text by Jean Cocteau, and Pagliacci, text and music by Ruggero Leoncavallo, are studies in what it is to love devotedly and passionately, only to find that you have loved too long.

Francis Poulenc is among the most performed of French composers. His Gloria is surpassed in number of performances only by Ravel’s Bolero. Born into a wealthy Parisian family in 1899, whose Rhône-Poulenc Chemical Corporation remains among the most financially successful companies in the world today, he had every advantage that financial resources and one of Europe’s most glittering capital cities could provide.

Enjoying an excellent education coupled with a keen intellect and an out-going, jovial personality, even as a teenager Poulenc found himself in the company of the towering icons of his time: Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Satie, Cocteau, Picasso, Apollinaire and many others, who either assisted his career, advised him, or became a close personal friend. There was only one city in the world that could offer this kind of concentrated creative force in the 1920s, and Poulenc was born in it.

"Café-goers enjoy a pleasant afternoon in Montparnasse—Left Bank center of bohemian life in Paris."
Through the Lens: National Geographic's Greatest Photographs, 2003

Having had success in all manner of music, from ballets for Diaghilev to chamber music for the salons of royalty, Poulenc turned to opera rather late in his career. His first major masterwork was Dialogue of the Carmelites, which had its American premiere at the San Francisco Opera, starring Leontyne Price, in a production that was televised across the nation. He composed two more operas, Les Mamelles de Tirésias and, finally, La voix humaine. These operas, like so much of Poulenc’s work, are so widely disparate that they would seem to have been written by three different composers.  Carmelites is a large work of obvious genius and contains a deep sense of the sacred, as it depicts nuns in a Carmelite convent at the time of the French Revolution, concluding with the execution of each of the women in turn. Les Mamelles de Tirésias is about a woman who is tired of the kind of life assigned to women, and who rids herself of her most obvious feminine characteristics (two balloons that are released to float away) in order to take on the work-a-day life of a man; it is clearly a comedy. La voix humaine came later, at a time when Poulenc, in his 50s, had lost many of the most important relationships of his life and who lived with the mistaken assumption that his twenty-something lover would throw him over (the young man remained with him to the end). Poulenc could bring much genuine feeling to this deeply revealing emotional rollercoaster.

La voix humaine was written by Jean Cocteau in 1930, as a play for a single woman. Many illustrious actresses have performed the role since, including Simone Signoret and Anna Magnani. The opera, originally performed by Denise Duval, has been sung by a dizzying number of brilliant singers, and many of these performances are available, at least in part, in video recordings.

In this one-act opera for a single character, a woman is alone in her apartment waiting for a phone call from her lover, who having told her the affair is over, has also told her that he would call again this evening. When he does, and she melts at the sound of his voice, she soon finds that what he wants is his letters. He wants no record of their relationship to remain after he is married tomorrow. She does everything she can to keep him on the line, and we observe this woman as her world melts away.

I had a dream.
I dreamed about what is happening to us.
I woke up so happy because it was just a dream,
But then, when I knew it was true,
That I was alone,
That I didn’t have my head on your neck,
I felt that I could not go on living…
I didn’t feel my heart beating anymore,
But death was long in coming.

Poulenc was unembarrassed to compose music in clearly recognizable harmonic progressions of an earlier time, and ignored the 20th-century avant-garde insistence on 12-tone music and music without melodies. This score, admittedly jarring on occasion, is richly orchestrated and gives the singer lyric passages of both beauty and frantic fearfulness.

Layna Chianakas, who sang this role superbly for Opera San José in 1996, has agreed to make her directorial debut with this production. Her insights into the character have led to a beautiful set, inspired by the sketches of Cocteau (a true polymath), in the black and white world of film noir. We are pleased to have Bryan Nies conducting the brilliant singing actresses Betany Coffland and Suzan Hanson in this demanding tour de force.

Editor’s note: New to the OSJ Blog? Be sure to subscribe to our RSS feed, to ensure that you never miss a beat, including upcoming interviews with mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland (La voix humaine), tenor Alexander Boyer (Pagliacci), and an article about Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci by General Manager Larry Hancock!

A captive princess. A brave prince. An angry God. What’s not to like?

“But nothing could make Idomeneus panic—no green boy,
he stood his ground like a wild mountain boar,
trusting his strength, standing up to a rout of men…”
—Homer, The Iliad as translated by Robert Fagles

In the opening to Chapter 13 of The Iliad, Homer mentions Idomeneus, the king of Crete, who led the Cretan army to fight alongside the Greeks in the Trojan War, and was one of Helen’s many suitors. From this brief account of a tremendously strong, experienced, and fearless warrior, an elaborate homecoming story has developed and been embroidered over the ages. Homer’s epic poem about the fall of Troy has endured for centuries, and in 1780 a musical prodigy was commissioned to compose a cutting-edge work based on a French version of the tale of Idomeneus, combining Italian and French operatic traditions. Mozart’s Idomeneo, re di Creta premiered during the Munich carnival season the following winter, when the composer was just twenty-five years old.

Mozart’s first masterpiece in opera, Idomeneo is rich with the deep emotion and aristocratic restraint of opera seria, but enlivened by the choruses and dance of French court opera. Idomeneo is the largest of Mozart’s operas, and the most ambitious on every level–from the brilliant orchestral writing and daunting scenic demands, to the sheer scope of the story. Though the more famous Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte were to follow, Idomeneo would remain Mozart’s favorite of all his works for the stage.


The Shipwreck; Idomeneo Set Design by Steven C. Kemp, 2011

Before the opera even begins, the situation is primed for emotional extremes. Set on the island of Crete at the end of the Trojan War, it is the story of King Idomeneo’s return after the ten-year siege on the plains of Troy. Several ships in the fleet had been sent ahead to Crete laden with treasure, captured Trojan warriors, and his most significant trophy, the kidnapped princess Ilia–the beautiful daughter of King Priam of Troy, and sister of Hector and Paris. By his own admission, Idomeneo was filled with pride over his part in the winning of that devastating war, and as we all know, Greek gods did not abide a prideful man…

Within sight of Sidon, the capital of Crete, Neptune attacked Idomeneo’s fleet and the ships were overwhelmed by a violent storm, the hapless passengers thrown into the sea. The ship bearing Ilia was the first to sink, but Idamante, crown prince of Crete and only child of Idomeneo rescued her from the pounding surf. This put Ilia into a difficult position; she hated the Greeks for killing her father and brothers, for sacking and burning her city, and for the utter destruction of her nation. Yet suddenly, she owed her very life to Idamante, the handsome son of the renowned warrior who helped to defeat her people.

Ilia’s Room; Idomeneo Set Design by Steven C. Kemp, 2011

Back at the palace, Ilia is given a place of honor, but she is not the only royal guest. Also in residence is Elettra, daughter of the Greek King Agamemnon. Elettra fled Argos after a violent bloodbath: upon his return from Troy her father, Agamemnon, was murdered by his wife’s lover, and Elettra’s brother Orestes had, in turn, killed their mother out of vengeance. Now homeless, Elettra has pinned her royal hopes on Idamante, who through marriage, could restore her to a throne. In Elettra’s eyes, Ilia should be no more than a vanquished slave.

Idomeneo, meanwhile, finds his own ship the object of Neptune’s greatest wrath. In the most violent terrors of the storm, Neptune extracts a cruel vow from Idomeneo: to save his own life, he must sacrifice to Neptune the first mortal he meets on shore. Of course, the god is aware that the person Idomeneo will meet will be his only son.

The clockwork of tragedy is set in motion, and it presses relentlessly towards an end that will break the heart of Ilia, ruin the hopes of Elettra, and end Idomeneo’s royal line, except for one caveat of opera seria: the happy ending. Finding out how Mozart manages this twist of fate is part of the reason to buy a ticket. Suffice it to say, the final curtain falls while the people of Crete are dancing.

Opera San José has long looked through the score of Idomeneo with green eyes. Mozart lavished much of his most appealing and dramatic music on this opera: its characters are richly drawn and their emotional states, while clear, are ever changing and underscored with revealing harmonic shifts. Idomeneo is filled with lovely, limpid arias, brilliant arias, and arias of fire and fury. It has the most powerful choruses of the era, and incorporates dance, ritual movement, and wonderful scenic effects. It is a truly epic work that normally lies outside the reach of a company like Opera San José.

This season, thanks to the generous support of David W. Packard and the Packard Humanities Institute, Idomeneo will yet have its San José premiere. Mr. Packard is the visionary behind every element in this production, and he has assembled a panel of archeological experts whose knowledge of Bronze Age Greece is both wide-ranging and specific. This team knows the ruins of Crete intimately and first-hand, and is well versed in the detail of fabrics, jewelry, ship building–indeed, seemingly everything that can be known about Crete at the time of the fall of Troy. All designs, from earrings to temple façades, were filtered through these knowledgeable scholars.

The enormous size of the sets are such that some elements cannot be built in our shop, and are instead being constructed in an airplane hanger on Treasure Island by Island Creative. The painting is being executed by Evergreene Architectural Arts, a firm that does historical restoration on such prestigious buildings as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in our nation’s capital. Idomeneo is, by far, the most ambitious project ever mounted by Opera San José, so much so that it dwarfs the company’s previous works.

It is our great pleasure to have George Cleve, a noted Mozart specialist who has conducted several productions for Opera San José in the past, as the principal conductor. Brad Dalton, who recently directed Anna Karenina, Così fan tutte, and Madama Butterfly for Opera San José, has taken on the enormous task of directing. The staging of this Mozart masterpiece will be a milestone in the history of opera production in San José, and is certainly the must-see event of the season.