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.

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.

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