In memory of Inelda Tajo

I met Inelda and Italo Tajo in 1967, when I transferred from Juilliard to CCM, just so I could study with my idol, Italo Tajo. Practically from day one the Tajo’s embraced me as surrogate parents, first as a bachelor, and then with Kimberly, my wife of forty years. Inelda and Italo were much more than friends. Inelda was beyond kind, beyond hospitable, quintessentially Italian, loving, giving. We stopped counting how many hours we spent at their table at their enchanting home on Penway Court. Our lives and careers took us here and there but we always stayed in touch with cards and letters and phone calls, and periodically with visits to Cincinnati to see the Tajos, while Italo was still alive, and then with Inelda, a little part of whom died with him. The part that remained alive was still vibrant, filled with an immense humanity, and ever ready with a smile and a kind word.

- Rafael de Acha

So many memories of my early life include Inelda. I remember vividly when I was introduced to her, standing in the hall outside the Dean’s office at C-CM. She was bundled up for the Cincinnati Winter in a fur coat, and smiling the warmest, happy smile. Her eyes smiled. And, that wonderful, infectious warmth was there throughout her life.

As an undergraduate, I was a member of Maestro’s opera workshop. There I found my voice as a singer, learned about the profession, and met my husband, Rafael.

So often, Maestro loaded a group of us in his car, and took us home for one of Inelda’s wonderful Italian dinners, and spirited conversation around a table that might include students, and some of the biggest names in opera. We were all welcome there, and made to feel special. And, at the holidays, we were all sent home with panettone, or later, with a little bottle of Inelda’s Digestivo di Salvia.

I visited her in the nursing home in late May, and, in spite of weakness and the battle she was bravely fighting, she still wanted to know about how we were doing, and regretted most that she was missing musical events that she loved so much.

Inelda loved Maestro, her friends, the students, her home, opera, kitty cats, and welcoming people around her table for the best Italian food anywhere. She was truly one of the kindest, most constant and selfless people I have ever known, and these wonderful memories of her will be with me for the rest of my life.

Ciao, Inelda.

- Kimberly Daniel de Acha

Summer Events

This summer, in addition to our various presentations of Theater by the Book (go to www.theaterbythebook.org) I will be working with City Theatre (go to www.citytheatre.com ) at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

The two-program Summer Shorts runs from May 29 to June 22, 2008 in Miami and features in program “A” a terrific ten-minute play by Henry Meyerson titled Silence. My cast is stellar – Laura Turnbull, Antonio Amadeo and Steve Trovillion – and the entire program is full of both world and Southeast premieres of new works, including one by our friend Michael McKeever.

Meanwhile, Kimberly is in the thick of rehearsals for Romulus Hunt, an opera by Carly Simon (you heard me right) that is being presented at Gusman (downtown, not the UM one) directed by our friend Phillip Church. The dates for that are Friday May 16 at 10 AM and Saturday May 17 at 8 PM. Go to www.romulushunt.com for all the information you will need.

Later on in July I will be staging Puccini‘s Madame Butterfly for the Miami Lyric Opera (go to www.miamilyricopera.org) The fledgling opera company will have two performances of Puccini’s masterpiece at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach, on July 26 and August 2. No idea of a cast yet, but judging by who they have lined up for their upcoming Lucia ( May 24) I would venture a guess that it will be an A-List ensemble. I am right now delving into books on Japanese customs and stage movement…

After all of that Kimberly and I hope to get away and have a long-awaited 40th Anniversary vacation before U of M starts up again in late August, just in time to start rehearsals of my adaptation of Shakespeare‘s Henry Fourth (parts 1 and 2) that we’ll be doing in a staged reading at Vizcaya and Books and Books in early September.

Do let me know what and where and when you are doing or acting or directing or singing or whatever on my Keeping in Touch page. HAVE A GREAT SUMMER!

Diversión doble

DANIEL FERNANDEZ
El Nuevo Herald Publicado el jueves 17 de abril del 2008

Por supuesto que la mayoría eran alumnos a quienes les falta todavía un buen tramo por recorrer en el duro camino del arte; pero no por ello hay que pasar por alto un esfuerzo tan digno como la doble producción que se presentó el fin de semana pasado en el Gusman Concert Hall de la Universidad de Miami. El Frost Opera Theater, grupo de alumnos y profesores de la Escuela de Música de ese plantel ofreció la divertida comedia de corte mágicoinfantil Bastián y Bastiana, de Mozart –quien la compuso en sus 12 años– y la bellísima ópera-ballet Dido y Eneas, de Purcell.

Graciosa la idea de ”teatro dentro del teatro” con que comenzó la noche, al presentar a los jóvenes participantes en su ámbito ensayístico y hacer cambios de decorado y vestuario frente al público para pasar a la obrita mozartiana. Un acierto de la directora y diseñadora de los decorados, Kimberly Daniel de Acha. Laura Montes como Bastiana se mostró ya bastante segura en las lides teatrales y demostró un talento vocal valioso aunque por pulir. Su contrapartida, Rishi Rane como Bastián, algo más verde, cumplió dignamente con su papel.

Un bonus: la habilidad del cantante profesional y profesor Will Earl Spanheimer como el benévolo y travieso mago. La menuda orquesta dirigida por Zoe Zeniodi fue un justo marco de apoyo para los nóveles cantantes.

La segunda oferta de la noche, Dido y Eneas era algo más serio, mucho más serio, no sólo por su temática –los amores tormentosos entre estos dos personajes míticos– sino porque su música y estructura teatral son más complejas. Trajes (K. Blair Brown), decorados (Melissa Weaver y John Duykers) y bailes (Kathyanne Londono) fueron resueltos con gran efectividad y podía apreciarse que los cantantes y bailarines disfrutaban mucho con esta puesta dirigida por Weaver y Duykers.

Lauren Levy que tuvo a su cargo Dido, posee una voz poderosa que ella sabe modular, pero su timbre no es compatible con la dulzura que requiere su personaje. Quizá como la hechicera se hubiera podido lucir más; aunque es preciso decir que Khrista Orantes en ese personaje –la noche del 10 de abril– estuvo muy convincente, a pesar de que el traje no la ayudaba nada, debió haber sido oscuro, no claro. Las dos hechiceras acompañantes, a cargo de Fiona Gibson y Christina Hjelm también se lucieron en sus papeles menores.

El Eneas de Andrew York quedó falto de fuerza y credibilidad, aunque en lo musical no hubo nada que lamentar. Tampoco hubo brillo en la Belinda de Juanita Marchand. Lo mejor de esta puesta fueron los coros sin duda, tanto en función de cortesanos como de adoradores paganos. El público supo reconocerlo con ovaciones a sus integrantes después de sus intervenciones. Un triunfo para la Chorus Master Korre Foster.

Sin duda puestas muy dignas que muestran una voluntad de crecer por parte de los alumnos y por parte de la escuela el interés de proporcionar a los que se inician en el camino del arte oportunidades de entrar en contacto con el público y con obras de peso en el repertorio.

UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI FROST OPERA THEATER DOUBLE BILL


MOZART’S BASTIEN AND BASTIENNE
in a double-bill with
PURCELL’S DIDO AND AENEAS

Frost Opera Theater concludes its critically acclaimed 2007-08 season when Mozart’s Bastien and Bastienne and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas share the stage at the University of Miami’s Gusman Hall in a fully staged double-bill, accompanied by members of the Frost Symphony Orchestra.

Mozart’s early childhood opera arrives in style with a newly commissioned English translation by Rafael de Acha, under the direction of Kimberly Daniel de Acha, conducted by Zoe Zeniodi. The Mozart opera is paired with the tragedy of Dido and Aeneas in Purcell’s great Baroque opera, conducted by Alan Johnson and staged by John and Melissa Duykers.

Performances are Thursday through Saturday, April 10, 11 and12 at 8:00 PM and on Sunday, April 13 at 3:00 P.M.

Maurice Gusman Concert Hall is located at 1314 Miller Drive on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus.

Tickets are $20 General Admission, $10 Seniors and $5 UM Students, Faculty, and Staff.

The Thursday April 10th performance is free for UM Students, Faculty, and Staff

For tickets and information, call 305-284-4886.

Special theater awards

From Christine Dolen’s blog Drama Queen: (http://miamiherald.typepad.com/drama_queen/theater)

Each year South Florida’s theater community — well, a great deal of it, from Miami-Dade to Palm Beach County — gathers at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts to recognize some of the best work done at the region’s many theaters during the previous year. The annual Carbonell Awards, which will take place on Monday, April 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater, also give out several special honors, including the George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts. It goes this year to Jack Zink, longtime Sun-Sentinel theater critic, for his many contributions to theater, to the evolution of the Carbonells themselves and to the work he did as president of the American Theatre Critics Association foundation. The hard-working, multi-tasking Zink becomes the first person to win the Abbott Award twice.

The recipients of three other special awards were announced today.

The Bill Hindman Award — an honor very close to my heart, as it is named for my late father — goes to New Theatre founder Rafael de Acha. The award recognizes significant long-term contributions to the region’s cultural life. As artistic director of a theater where a multicultural company performed classics and new work, De Acha was responsible for helping get the commission that led to Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics, a play that made Cruz the first Latino winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama after its world premiere at New Theatre. De Acha also directed my dad in many productions, giving him a real working “home” toward the end of his life and becoming his dear friend.

Also being honored at this year’s Carbonells is Michael Hall, founder and artistic director of Boca Raton’s 33-year-old Caldwell Theatre Company. Hall is being given the Ruth Foreman Award, named in honor of the late producer-director who was long known as Florida’s “First Lady of Theater.” The Foreman recognizes contributions to South Florida theater development, and Hall is getting it for his achievement in guiding his company’s new $10 million Count de Hoernle Theatre from dream to reality.

The third honor, the Howard Kleinberg Award, goes to the Theatre League of South Florida. Named for former Miami News editor Howard Kleinberg, it recognizes contributions to the health and development of the arts in South Florida. Meredith Lasher, the League’s current president, will accept the award at the Carbonell ceremony.

Congratulations to all!

All Academia’s a Stage

Rafael de Acha
With thanks to William Shakespeare

All Academia’s a Stage
And all the Ph. D’s merely players:
They have their exits, if not tenured,
And one Prof in his time plays many parts,
His lectures being simply endless.
At first, the Freshman, mewling and puking in th’advisor’s arms,
And then the shining Sophomore,
With his backpack and sourpuss at 8 AM class,
Creeping like Snail, unwillingly to school.
And then the Junior, sighing like furnace,
With a woeful excuse to his teacher
As to why he missed the last ten sessions of the class.
And then the Senior, full of strange oaths,
Dependant on his Google, sudden and quick to blame,
Quick to plagiarize, bearded, perforated, tattoed,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even if it’s Finals time
And then the T.A.
Unfair with rounded belly,
(He needs to lose some weight)
With eyes that cross
From hours in the stacks,
Full of weird quotes and modern instances:
And so he plays his part.
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and underpaid Adjunct Lecturer
With spectacles on nose and paunchy at the belt,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his lecturer’s voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.
Last scene of all that ends this academia
Is th’ eternal tenure track,
Just like being back as Freshman:
Second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans benefits, sans pension, sans insurance, sans everything.

A veteran returns

From Christine Dolen’s blog Drama Queen: (http://miamiherald.typepad.com/drama_queen/theater)

When Rafael de Acha abruptly left his job as artistic director of New Theatre in April 2006, one of the reasons he gave was the desire to spend more time enjoying life with his wife (and New Theatre co-founder), actress and college prof Kimberly Daniel.

Both artists have been through a lot since then. Daniel had a bone-shattering accident first, followed by long months of rehab. Then her hubby, cleaning leaves from the gutters at the couple’s home, fell off the roof. More broken bones, more rehab.

There was also, though neither side wants to talk about it, an acrimonious split from the board and current management of the company the couple founded 22 years ago. While they were still in charge, the theater commissioned and premiered Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics, a play that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

With all that drama and some savoring of life behind them, Daniel and De Acha have decided to ease back into theater. They’re starting a new venture they call Theater by the Book, planning staged readings of plays at the church they attend, Coral Gables Congregational Church (the very pretty church that is across the street from the historic Biltmore Hotel and its resident theater, GableStage).

“It was the right moment,” De Acha says of the new venture. “The pastor [Laurie Hafner] said why don’t we start a theater group. I said, ‘Hey, why not?’”

Dispensing with sets, costumes and props, they plan to focus on actors and text, tackling many large-cast classics that don’t get done in South Florida for economic reasons. Their first play is Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town, with a cast featuring David Kwiat, Bill Schwartz, Robert Strain, Barbara Sloan, Cecilia Torres and Daniel, all actors who worked with De Acha at New Theatre. The show happens at both 2 and 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 27, in the church’s small chapel.

Theater by the Book plans more readings of American and English classics — musicals included.

Verdi and Shakespeare

Rafael de Acha © 2008

In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago, the arch-enemy of his professed friend Othello, hyphenated low-life, evil-incarnate, bottom-feeder, low-grade officer and greatest anti-hero of all time – obliquely hints at what makes him tick. This happens at the onset of the play, in the Venetian scene with which Verdi dispensed in his opera.

Shakespeare provides Iago with five long speeches in Act I, Scene 1. This fifth one, with a daunting 26 lines of verse gives us at the end of the scene a hint of things to come as Iago speaks to the cynical Roderigo…

O, sir, content you!
I follow him to serve my turn upon him.
We cannot all be masters, nor can all masters be truly followed…
(and later…)
In following him, I follow but myself.
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end.
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.

Here is Verdi’s Iago on the same subject. It takes only eleven multi-syllabic lines by Arrigo Boito and we have the complete picture. Iago has no Roderigo here, just the audience, to which he says quite late in the play:

Credo in un Dio crudel che m’ha creato simile a se e che nell’ira Io nomo.
Dalla viltà d’un germe o d’un atomo vile so nato.
Son scellerato perche son uomo e sento il fango originario in me.
Si, questa e la mia fe:
Credo con fermo cuor, siccome crede la vedovella al tempio
Che il mal ch’Io penso e che da me procede, per mio destino adempio
Credo che il giusto e un istrion beffardo e nel viso e nel cuor,
Che tutto in lui e buggiardo: lacrima, bacio, sguardo, sacrificio ed onor
E credo l’uom, gioco d’iniqua sorte dal germe della culla al verme dell’ avel.
Vien dopo tanta irision la morte. E poi? E poi? La morte e il nulla.
E vecchia fiaba è il ciel.

Opera must make room for the music, and music takes twice as long to say essentially the same thing. When a great librettist – Arrigo Boito, in this case – manages to concisely distill the essence of a great Shakespearean character, such as Iago, the results can be nothing short of brilliant. These are Iago’s views, English:

I believe in a cruel god who made me in his image and whose name I only utter when I curse. I come from the vilest germ or atom that ever was. I am wretched because I am a man and I am made from primal mud. My faith is this: I believe with all my heart, as the little widow believes in her church, that the evil that I conceive and that comes from me I can use to serve my purposes, and that the just man is but a clown both inside and out, and that he is all lies: all his tears, all his kisses, all his looks, all his sacrifices, all his honor nothing but lies. And I believe that man is but the plaything of an unjust fate from the very germ of the cradle to the final worm in the grave. And, after all this irritation comes death. And after…? Nothing! Heaven is an old lie.

Let us look at another example of what we could call Operatic Transplantation.

Also a Shakespeare character and, unlike Iago, not a consummate genius of evil, Macbeth is an essentially simple, down to earth, unimaginative military man who is turned into a killing machine by fate, by elements of the supernatural, by an ambitious wife, and, above all, by the seeds of moral doubt and ambiguity that life can implant in the human mind.

In Shakespearean drama, character is drawn from and born out of the action. Macbeth has three witches appear to him to make three predictions about his future. As each prediction is fulfilled, the character of Macbeth is revealed, even as it is formed, quite as if it were an onion whose layers slowly peel away. This process takes time. In drama there is often plenty of time.

A Shakespeare play – and Macbeth is the shortest of all the dramas in the Canon – can run 3 to 5 hours. Only the longest of Wagner’s operas approximate or surpass that sort of running time. In the opera Macbeth by Verdi we have signpost moments along the way in which the character of Macbeth says to his audience: “This is what I think is happening to me. This is how I am reacting to it. This is what I think I need to do.” The element of surprise in opera is diminished just as the element of anticipation and tension increases in an interesting sort of trade off.

But, most important to know: the operatic character is set, partly due, no doubt, to the fact that the music is set, it has been written and that being the case that music determines the rate of speed at which the action will spin and the character will change and evolve with that action.

It is not until the second half of the Shakespeare play that Macbeth that its title character gets to speak his famous speech “To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow…” with its deeply sad reflections on the meaningless of life. In its entirety, the speech has a terrifying finality to it, as if the character were for all practical purposes divesting itself of any further pretense to humanity or compassion. And this confessional speech – typical of Shakespeare’s historical dramas – occurs moments before the final prophecy is fulfilled: Macbeth will perish at the hand of someone not of woman born.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Meanwhile, in the opera and barely into his first scene, Verdi’s Macbeth gets to comment to us in his arioso “Due vaticini compiuti or sono…” and he elaborates about his impending quandary and his amazement over the fulfillment of the first two prophecies. Verdi’s great operatic characters are great communicators- especially those of Shakespearean provenance. Verdi, fully in command of things, does not allow them to dilly-dally with reflective self-examinations.

The Verdi arioso and the Shakespearean soliloquy are not that dissimilar. There are basically four kinds of utterances a Shakespearean character can make when speaking to or by himself for an extended passage any longer than a couple of lines of verse: He or she can speak to him/her self: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

The Shakespearean character can speak to God or to the gods, to the elements, to fate, or to the cosmos, in either a generalized manner as in Lear’s “Blow winds and crack your cheeks.” or in a specific way – a prayer, for instance – such as “If this too, too solid flesh…” which Hamlet interrupts with a cry of God, God!

And, of course, a character can speak at length to a group of characters in a group or in a multitude: “Friends, romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”

And, lastly, there is the Shakespearean tirade, such as Mercutio’s “Then I see Queen Mab has been with you…” which overwhelms the characters of Romeo and Benvolio to whom it is addressed by the sheer volume of words it boasts.

In the scenes with Lady Macbeth and in his grand aria “Piettà, rispetto, onore” Macbeth questions and comments reflectively on what changes he has undergone, whereas Shakespeare’s King of Scotland delays any such intimacies with the audience until his last few moments, when Lady Macbeth and Banquo and Duncan and so many others lie dead. And then, there is a bleak sense of Beckettian inexplicability to his utterance: “Life is a tale told by a fool, Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Verdi’s Macbeth is articulate, eloquent and contradictorily noble in his acceptance of the causal relationship of deed and consequence. More a Romantic anti-hero than a nihilistic villain, he is elevated to the level of dramatic icon through the grand nobility of Verdi’s writing and Piave’s verse:

Piettà, rispetto, amore
Comforto ai di cadenti
Non spargeran d’un fiore
La tua canuta ettà!
Ne suo tuo reggio sasso
Sperar soavi accenti
Sol la bestemmia, ahi lasso!
La nenia tua sarà!

Pity, respect, love, all the comforts to one’s waning days, will not bloom a flower upon your final age, nor will your royal tomb hear soft accents spoken by it, but, instead, only curses, alas, shall be sung as your dirge!

Neither Iago, nor Macbeth, nor any of Shakespeare’s other great and infamously cruel males: Edmund, Claudius, to name but two more, manage to articulate their logic of evil the way a Sparafucile or a Grand Inquisitor or a Count di Luna do in Verdi’s great musical dramas. Not to us anyway. Claudius pours out his torment in his prayer (often cut from performances) in which he navigates the ins and outs of Catholic guilt and the possibility of redemption. But he never lets us in on why he did the dastardly deeds that precipitate the action of the play.

The Bastard son Edmund gets as close to explicability as any Verdi character ever does, with his straight-ahead opening speech – one that would make quite a baritone aria in the King Lear Verdi thought about writing:

Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,–legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

It is in the grand comedy of all operatic comedy that Verdi gets to take the time he needs to give the larger than life Sir John Falstaff the breathing room that both his girth and his verbosity require. In the formidably verbal L’onore…Ladri! soliloquy, Boito and Verdi make the text that in Shakespeare is merely a few lines long sing and ring in one of the all-time great baritone arias. Here the pattern is reversed, with Verdi re-composing Shakespeare with one line from Henry, two from Merry Wives, and a nip and a tuck.

Verdi’s Falstaff, a conflation of the same main characters and plot twists in both Henry IV parts and in The Merry Wives of Windsor, pilfers some gold from each one of these plays.

Both the Mondo Ladro soliloquy and the arietta Quando ero paggio make the most out of a few isolated lines of Shakespeare and expand their dramatic and musical moments lyrically and textually into brilliant moments of music theatre, instances in which time stands still and in which text and music become one.

Shakespeare does not waste time with the aftermath of Falstaff”s soggy dunking in the Thames and the Sir’s ensuing reflections, nor does he elaborate much in the few lines that make up the Honor monologue in ‘Merry Wives.’ Here they are, both of them, first Shakespeare, then Verdi:

“Honor? Thieves! You speak of honor, you cesspools of infamy, while we who deserve to, can not always do so…Yes, I, me, myself! Should I not put aside my fear of God and, out of necessity, bend the rules of honor? Should I not use stratagems and misunderstandings, deviate and circumnavigate? And you, with your duplicity and your sly looks and your rotten deceitfulness speak of honor? What honor? What honor? What honor? What nonsense! What a lie! Can honor fill up your stomachs? No. Can it remove a thorn? No! Not a foot? No! Not a finger? No! Not a hair? No! Honor is not a doctor. What is it then? A word. And what is in that word? Just air. That was nice: ‘just air! Can a dead man feel his honor? No! Does it then live with the living? Neither, nor! Because by mistake honor is fattened by flattery, corrupted by pride and dulled by slander. So I’ll have none of it!”

L’Onore! Ladri! Voi state ligi all’onor vostro, voi!
Cloache d’ignominia, quando, non sempre, noi
Possiam star ligi al nostro. Io stesso, sì, io, io,
Devo talor da un lato porre il timor di Dio
E, per necessità, sviar l’onore, usare
Stratagemmi ed equivoci, destreggiar, bordeggiare.
E voi, coi vostri cenci e coll’occhiata torta
Da gatto-pardo e i fetidi sghignazzi avete a scorta
Il vostro Onor! Che onore?! che onor? che onor! che ciancia!
Che baia! – Può l’onore riempirvi la pancia?
No. Può l’onor rimettervi uno stinco? Non può.
Né un piede? No. Né un dito? Né un capello? No.
L’onor non è chirurgo. Che è dunque? Una parola.
Che c’è in questa parola? C’è dell’aria che vola.
Bel costrutto! L’onore lo può sentire chi è morto?
No. Vive sol coi vivi?… Neppure: perché a torto
Lo gonfian le lusinghe, lo corrompe l’orgoglio,
L’ammorban le calunnie; e per me non ne voglio!

Verdi accommodates the enormous self-pity of Falstaff allowing it to take center stage dramatically, and permitting the only moment of true poignancy to make its point until the final fugue at the end of the play:

Io, dunque, avrò vissuto tant’ anni, audace e destro
Cavaliere, per essere portato in un canestro
E gittato al canale co’pannilini biechi,
Come si fa coi gatti e i catellini ciechi.
Ché se non galleggiava per me
Quest’epa tronfia,
Certo affogavo. Brutta morte.
L’acqua mi gonfia.
Mondo reo. Non c’è più virtù.
Tutto declina.
Va, vecchio John, va,
va per la tua via; cammina
Finché tu muoia.
Allor scomparirà la vera
Virilità del mondo.
Che giornataccia nera!
M’aiuti il ciel! Impinguo troppo.
Ho dei peli grigi.

Verdi is sparse and neither glosses over nor indulge any sentimentality:

“And here I have lived all this years, a right honorable gentleman to then end up inside a laundry basket and being dumped into the water with the underwear, as they do to blind kittens…Why, I could have drowned were it not for my ability to float…What a mean world, a world devoid of all virtue…Everything decays these days…So, on your way, old John, walk on ’til you drop dead and until you reveal to the undeserving world what a real man is…What a black day! Heaven help me! I am fading…Look at these white hairs…

Shakespeare is more perfunctory and reserved in both cases:

“You stand upon your honour? I, I, I myself sometimes, leaving the fear of God on the left hand and hiding mine honour in my necessity, am fain to shuffle, to hedge and to lurch; and yet you, rogue, will ensconce your rags, your cat-a-mountain looks, your red-lattice phrases, and your bold-beating oaths, under the shelter of your honour!”

“Have I lived to be carried in a basket, like a barrow of butcher’s offal, and to be thrown in the Thames…? The rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as
they would have drowned a blind bitch’s puppies… The bottom were as deep as hell, I should down. I had been drowned…”

Here both giants are in the same ballpark, textually and emotionally, but it is Verdi the one who allows the gigantic wrath of Falstaff to mount to its climactic “Ma per me non ne voglio, no, non ne voglio, no…No, no!” that then rises up to the baritone’s high g and to a splendid curtain for the first scene of act I.

In other moments in Verdi’s ‘capolavori’ masterpieces there are examples of the reduction and distillation to the essence of the moment that the Master made his trademark. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene is one such moment: “Una macchia e qui tuttora…” serving all too well in its repetitiousness the obsessive behavior of a character on the brink of suicide.

Nanetta’s Sul fil d’un soffio etesio in Falstaff is entirely the product of Verdi’s creative genius:

“Sul fil d’un soffio etesio scorrete agili larve Fra I rami un baglior cesio d’alba lunar apparve. Danzate! E il passo blando misuri un blando suo
La magiche accopiando carole alla canzon.”

In English: “Scurry along on the mere breath of a still breeze you nimble little worms! See how through the branches the moon glows and appears. Dance away, letting your soft steps measure the soft sounds of music!”

In Merry Wives it is Mistress Quickly who leads the action and sings:

Fie on sinful fantasy!
Fie on lust and luxury!
Lust is but a bloody fire,
Kindled with unchaste desire,
Fed in heart, whose flames aspire
As thoughts do blow them, higher and higher.
Pinch him, fairies, mutually;
Pinch him for his villany;
Pinch him, and burn him, and turn him about,
Till candles and starlight and moonshine be out.

Otello’s Esultate, Dio mi potevi scagliar and Niun mi tema are all three moments of perfect union of text and music in which the conciseness dictated by the constraints of sung text works as well as well as the more extended passages of Shakespeare’s original do in their rightful place.

Here’s Shakespeare’s Othello’s final farewell:

Be not afraid, though you do see me weapon’d;
Here is my journey’s end, here is my butt,
And very sea-mark of my utmost sail.
Do you go back dismay’d? ’tis a lost fear;
Man but a rush against Othello’s breast,
And he retires. Where should Othello go?
Now, how dost thou look now? O ill-starr’d wench!
Pale as thy smock! when we shall meet at compt,
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
And fiends will snatch at it. Cold, cold, my girl!
Even like thy chastity. O cursed slave!
Whip me, ye devils,
From the possession of this heavenly sight!
Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur!
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!
O Desdemona! Desdemona! dead!

Verdi/Boito trim that to:

Niun mi tema s’anco armato mi vede.Ecco la fine del mio camin…
Oh! Gloria! Otello fu.
E tu. . .come sei pallida! e stanca, e muta, e bella,
pia creatura nata sotto maligna stella.

Fredda come la casta tua vita e in cielo assorta.

Desdemona! Desdemona!…
Ah. . .morta! morta! morta!…
Ho un’arma ancor!Pria d’ucciderti…sposa…ti baciai.

Or morendo. . .nell’ombra…

in cui mi giacio…

Un bacio…un bacio ancora…ah!…un altro bacio…

When all is said and done, Shakespeare is unequaled in his mastery of text, in his many-faceted and brilliant gifts of language, in his scene painting, in his character delineation. One can not imagine an adequate musical setting of “To be or not to be” or the “Solid Flesh” or the “How do all occasions” speeches of the Prince of Denmark except in their original state.

The Frenchman Ambroise Thomas tried Shakespeare and failed. Hamlet has to take his time to examine the Big Questions of existence, life, and death. Opera moves along.

“All the world’s stage” in the lips of the minor character of Jacques in As You Like It has an innate musicality that any other music would only contradict. Cleopatra’s extended death scene with its multiple speeches confounded even the gifted Samuel Barber and should have been left alone to sing its own music of death, transfiguration and immortality in Antony and Cleopatra.

But then it was Verdi and Verdi alone the only one who could attempt and most often succeeded in setting the Bard to music. His profound love of the plays of Shakespeare surely served him in good stead. And we can only imagine what a King Lear Verdi could have written, had he lived another couple of years. Sadly, we have to wait for King Lear – the opera – to be written. Along with King Lear, would it not be great to have a powerful Merchant of Venice, a comic Twelfth Night (that most musical of plays) and an epic Henry V for a house with a great chorus and three great singing actors for Henry, Hotspur, and Falstaff? So many plays, so little time!

My All-time Favorite Desert Island Opera Videos

Rafael de Acha © 2008

Opera and opera recordings and opera singers are like anything else that appeals primarily to the senses and only secondarily to the brain: it all is rather personal, quirky, and irrational. One man’s potion = another man’s poison.

So, when it comes to making a selection of video recordings that will accompany us in a course in the History of Opera that we’ll soon be teaching, we inevitably end up with a kind of “My All-time Favorite Desert Island Opera Videos for a Desert Island equipped with a battery-operated DVD player.” Just like this one…

In other words, a list that is close to one’s heart could and probably would elicit sharp criticism and howls of laughter by the aficionados on the other side of the operatic divide.

One could almost hear “The Domingo Otello!?” “What about the Vickers Otello with Peter Glossop as Iago?” Yeah, right, but they didn’t make a video out of that one. “Bartoli’s Rosina?” “But she makes all those faces when she sings…” Yeah, so did Conchita Supervia and Teresa Berganza before her.

Yes, one man’s potion is another man’s poison. So then, we proceed, if not confident in our critical insights, at least sure that we know what we like and we like what we know. I am not familiar with the Tamagno-Maurel 1903 recording of Verdi’s masterpiece but I highly suspect one exists.

Not having viewed each one of the 20 or more DVD recordings of Otello that exist somewhere in the world, including the Estonian National Opera 2004 recording (in Estonian with German subtitles) which indeed I did not see, I have to zero in on some known quantities. At least until the next Othello is released, maybe one with Ben Heppner in the title role…Now, that would make my operatic day!

This list is meant to accompany a survey course I am supposed to be teaching sometime later this year at a university in the city where I live. Unless there is a hiring freeze or the next recession kicks in or they hate my teaching or loathe my choice of ties, I will be using this much-touted list in my class and saying to my students “We will now view…”

The videos listed here exist. I bought them throughout the years that DVD’s and, before them, VHS’s have been in existence. I can offer no assurances as to your being able to get them. But I would bet you could find one of these recordings – if not all – by searching your favorite on-line stores on the Web. More likely than not they are all out there somewhere, as re-releases or on the shelves of your favorite circulating library.

My course is divided into 25 class lectures. The headings that follow correspond to one or several sessions that would cover a particular period in the history of opera or a particular composer. Now on to the partial list, one which will take us through Verdi before we then backtrack to Bel Canto opera and to French opera.

Beyond await us Puccini and Verismo, Wagner, Russian opera, the Spanish Zarzuelas and Operas, Strauss and the other 20th century innovators.

Early Opera – Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea

Claudio Monteverdi

This is a rare bird found only occasionally these days on the stages of opera houses around the world. Notwithstanding its two juicy lead roles of Nero and Poppea and its steamy story of love and power struggles in Ancient Rome, the opera is a rarity. Lucky then that there are several DVD’s from which to choose. In my reviewing of them I quickly blew off the Bollywood Poppea, the proto-Fascist Poppea, and the – are we still not ready? – post-modern Poppea.

The recording I would take to my desert island if for no other reason just to wake up every morning to hear and watch Maria Ewing caress one of Poppea’s steamier ariosos, is the one with Raymond Leppard in the podium.

Another asset in that cast is veteran Robert Lloyd, a grave basso with Royal Shakespeare gravitas. The production by Sir Peter Hall evokes both Ancient Rome and the Renaissance of Monteverdi’s day in felicitous costuming.

This is a visual and dramatic and musical slam-dunk.

Georg Friedrich Handel

Early Opera – Giulio Cesare and Orfeo ed Euridice

Handel’s Giulio Cesare has been one of the catalysts in the revival of Baroque opera in America and abroad.

Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (or Orphée et Euridice if you prefer) is the best-known and most-often performed opera of the early classical period (Gluck, Haydn and the pre-Da Ponte Mozart).

Both Giulio Cesare and Orphée have plumy roles for star singers with an affinity to the genre and the voice to sing it.

The role of Cleopatra (the real lead in spite of the title) calls for a soprano with prodigious agility, good looks, and a larger than life personality. In other words, Beverly Sills in her prime… Alas, she left no video recording of this work!

Our options, briefly, are Peter Sellars’ production set in modern-day Egypt with the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson as a formidable Cornelia and Susan Larson’s slinky Cleopatra lounging by the Cairo Hilton pool in swimsuit and sunglasses.

There is David McVicar’s glossy-campy Glyndebourne production with the stunning Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra.

There is the Teatro Liceu de Barcelona’s confounding take, complete with Land’s End outfits for the conquerors, a pet crocodile for Cleo (I swear I am not making this up!) and a set of draconian cuts of some of the best airs in the opera. Best in show is the awesome Polish contralto Ewa Podles as Cornelia, who places us squarely in Cornelia’s corner.

Fourth in the line up is the Andreas Scholl recording (he is Caesar) with a second-tier cast in another director-driven, hysterical, sadly misconceived production.

Were I you, I’d opt for a good sound CD with any number of wonderful casts, including the City Opera one with Sills in her glorious prime and the prodigious basso Norman Treigle as Caesar, and with the wonderful Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester as Cornelia helming an excellent supporting cast.

As for Orfeo ed Euridice, I find but one choice – a great one: The 1982 Glyndebourne classy, visually sumptuous and insightful production directed by Sir Peter Hall with Janet Baker’s iconic Orfeo and Raymond Leppard doing yeoman work in the pit. Look no further.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Three options: his best opera seria, his best Singspiel (Die Zauberflötte), his best Italian opera buffa (Le Nozze di Figaro.) And I sneak in Don Giovanni in its own hybrid category of comic drama.

Inquiring minds, part one: Why not Così fan Tutte? Up front we stated this was going with us to our private desert island. Don’t ask. I won’t tell why I dislike Così with a passion.

Idomeneo

Prime target is this hapless opera for the slings and arrows of directorial capriciousness, ranging from the fantastical (Neptune sitting silently by an onstage pool as tenor Ramon Vargas sings Fuor del Mar) to the plain silly (female choristers as Cretan maidens with prosthetic breasts.)

I like my opera straight, not on the rocks of mannered directors where Idomeneo’s ship wrecks time and again. I will cast my vote accordingly: Pavarotti, Levine, Cotrubas, von Stade, Behrens, Jean Pierre Ponnelle. It is the old DG recording of the Met production of almost a quarter century ago.

The cast is luminous. Pavarotti conclusively proves that he could sing anything, including one of the most difficult non-Italian roles in the operatic canon.

Cotrubas as Ilia, Von Stade as Idamante and Behrens as Elettra are perfection incarnate.

The Ponnelle production is original in conception and impeccable in execution: he creates an Enlightenment world battling the forces of pagan irrationality in which reason triumphs at the end. The costumes are high Baroque and the setting coldly elegant: an arcane mix of Helenic architectural purity and French Rococo elegance. Levine’s conducting is magisterial. Buy it or borrow or steal it at your own risk now.

Die Zauberflötte

Being that this is the most fantastical opera in the Mozartian oeuvre, there is a lot of latitude in it for the directorially-challenged.

A misconceived Magic Flute can still ride on charm and on the strengths of a good cast.

A misconceived Abduction from the Seraglio is a day in Purgatory. That’s why there’s no Abduction in my list. The last one I saw took place on board the Orient Express in the 1920′s and should have been titled Abduction from La Gare du Nord. All aboard!

That said here is my dark horse favorite: Trollflöjten. Troll who? Trollflöjten – Ingmar Bergman’s enchanted, enchanting, visionary take on Mozart’s fantasy, preserved in film for us all to enjoy.

The stellar cast of young Swedes is up to the task, including a spectacular young, active Sarastro – Ulrik Cold – who, for once, does not put us to sleep with all the Masonic blah blah. There’s also a wonderful Papageno – Hakan Hagegard – and the funniest and scariest Monostatos in memory, the veteran Ragnar Ulfung.

The three Ladies look like three ladies rather than three housewives on the brink of a nervous breakdown, which they often do. Oh and they do not move in unison, thank Heavens!

The three little boys are three little boys. The two armed man look menacing. The Queen of the Night and Pamina look like Mother and Daughter and Tamino is a Swedish Hunk. And, oh, they can all sing!

Clocking in at 135 minutes one is safe to guess there are no major cuts in here to speak of, other than in the spoken dialogue. Buying this for your video collection gets you a bonus: it is one of the Swedish master’s finest achievements.

Le Nozze di Figaro

Give me a terrific cast of singing actors with two great bass-baritones, two great sopranos, one great lyric mezzo, a handful of top-notch comprimarios, al of them led by a stylish conductor and staged by an intelligent director willing to put his ego aside and simply do Da Ponte’s and Mozart’s ‘capolavoro.’ Easier said than seen!

There are well over a dozen versions available on Amazon.com, but I cast my vote by sinning on the side of common sense.

Take the cast: Walter Berry (Figaro), Reri Grist (Susanna), Edith Mathis (Countess), Imgar Vixell (Count), Claire Watson (Cherubino) all in Günther Rennert’s production with Karl Böhm leading the Salzburg Festival orchestra.

The year was 1966 and Berry, Grist, Mathis, Vixell and Watson were all of them in their 20′s and 30′s, fresh-voiced and with style by spades. Hands-down, the best of the best!

Don Giovanni

Past the issue of whether your baser instincts want a bass on first base (Don) and a bass on second (Leporello) and a bass on third (Commendattore) or if you prefer the less rumbling line up of a Kavalier Baryton Don Giovanni (Dieskau) and a buffo Leporello (Corena) and a Talvela heavyweight basso with power tools for the Statue, a main issue remains: you need the best of the best for this one

.

Yes! The main issue involved in casting Mozart’s drama giocoso is the seemingly simple one of hiring an ensemble of eight superb Mozartians and turning them over to the TLC of a very fine conductor and a very fine director. I do not recall ever seeing the perfect Don Giovanni in over forty years of opera going. Sorry! I am probably ungrateful.

The fact that the 1954 Salzburg Don Giovanni ever got recorded and is now available is nothing short of a miracle. With Furtwangler in the pit, Siepi as the Don and Paul Czinner as cinematographer, I can willingly put up with the Germanic sounds of Otto Edelman’s Leporello (“Madamina, il catalogo e kvesto”), Elizabeth Grümmer’s hooty Donna Anna and Lisa della Casa’s arctic Elvira.

But I could also hug the Zerlina of Erna Berger anytime were it not for the jealous presence of the best Masetto this writer ever saw: Walter Berry.

Siepi is the gold standard Don of the past century. Period. He is the leader of the pack with also-rans trailing behind him; a Don with the vocal heft of a Pinza and the honeyed legato and easy top that were Siepi’s career-long trademark. And he looks and acts the part to consummate perfection.

The production is straightforward, unencumbered by directorial idiocy (Giovanni in Spanish Harlem…) or visual fuss (the all-white recent Salzburg Don that a beloved American baritone all but walked out on.)

Ludwig van Beethoven

FIDELIO

Karita Mattila, Ben Heppner, Rene Pape, Falk Struchmann, Robert Lloyd, Jennifer Welch and Matthew Polenzani / Jürgen Flimm / James Levine / MET 1992

Some modern dress productions of operas which were written and set by their composers and librettists in times gone by simply do not work. Others are dour and dismal disasters that go into the annals of Bad Opera Productions of All Time. A few others of these directorial adventures fly by the seat of their pants and sort of crash-land, with few or no casualties.

Sometimes for it all to work it takes a cast, the confluence of a conductor and a cast, the happenchance of being in the right opera house in the right season…When such a coincidental or carefully planned event occurs, operatic fireworks happen, even if the set and costumes are less than right.

The cast of the 1992 Met Fidelio on DVD is magical. Karita Mattila simply dispels any memories of Traubel or Flagstad or you-name-your soprano in the role of Leonore. Mattila – all 5’10″ of her in tight khaki jodhpurs and boots and work shirt – is a dream Leonore: tomboyish, nosey, deliciously-pretty, self-assured by and of her mission. That is the dramatic part.

The vocalism of our Leonore is of the historic recording ilk. One imagines voice students will be watching and listening to this DVD a hundred years from now and learning. Mattila sings the best Abscheulicher this writer has ever heard. She then gives us some extraordinary vocalism in the ensuing scene with Pizarro and Rocco, and then turns around and outdoes herself with some more of the same kind of singing in the duet with Florestan. Mattila is one of a kind in this repertory.

Heppner is – even fifteen years ago – the true Jügendliche Heldentenor, fully ready to scale the heights of this role before graduating to the school of hard Tristan and Siegfried knocks. Dramatically he is dignified and quite able to let Leonore wear the pants this time around without loss of manliness.

Pape is a young Rocco whose old man make up can not quite hide the fact that he is in his early thirties, but one whose vocalism is gorgeous and lyrical in a role basses often bark.

Struckmann’s Pizarro does his share of barking, but then Beethoven wrote the role to be half-spoken, half-yelled in the upper half of the baritone range.

Robert Lloyd is a sonorous and dignified Don Fernando. Polenzani and Welch are a Jacquino-Marzelline pairing prematurely on the brink of their now or never about-to-be middle aged marriage. Rather that the usual leggiero-leggiero pairing more suited to Singspiel this is a couple suited to this heroic work.

Under Levine’s magisterial baton, the Met orchestra and chorus do phenomenal work. He defines the score for our time.

The production has sets by Robert Israel and costumes by Florence von Gerkan which, under the “regie” of German director Jürgen Flimm manage to serve a unified concept well. The concept is, as one perceives it, a universalist one, where the prison where Rocco and Jacquino work could be anywhere in the Western world – especially one with Latin American flavor – and in any century.

Usually this sort of equal opportunity setting tends to water things down dramatically. This time, the quintessential Enlightenment-transitions-to-Romanticism opera, all but works, aided no doubt by the great Mattila-Heppner-Pape triumvirate and the genius of Levine in the pit.

ITALIAN OPERA

Giuseppe Verdi

DON CARLO

Luciano Pavarotti, Samuel Ramey, Daniella Dessi, Paolo Coni, Luciana D’Intino, Alexander Anisimov / Ricardo Mutti / SCALA / EMI / 1992

DVD’s like good wines can and do have great years and 1992 seems to have been a great among greats in this grand cuvee of video recordings.

In 1992 Pavarotti was 57 and no hint of vocal decline was discernible in his brilliant and seemingly inexhaustible vocalism. Samuel Ramey, at age 50, was at the top of the bass game, delivering the goods in all the great basso roles in his vast repertory.

The lesser lights in this cast are still luminous, with an excellent Elisabetta in the person of Daniella Dessi. Paolo Coni is not one of your great Rodrigos, but it is enlightening to hear what a “secondo baritono” at La Scala can do these days, which is quite a bit. Alexander Anisimov’s perilous wabble as the Grand Inquisitor does not bode well for his future in the big leagues outside of whatever Russian provincial theatre for which he sings or sang. He in fact was never heard from again.

The Eboli is sung in the big bad Spanish girl tradition of Simionato and Barbieri by the young mezzo Luciana D’Intino. Having heard her sing O Don Fatale in the Richard Tucker Gala this past year (2007) I can vouch for her vocal longevity: she can still sing the big rep fifteen years later.

The main event here is the Pavarotti-Ramey-D’Intino triumvirate, with the solid support of Muti in the pit long before his Scala debacle.

The production is in the “more is more” tradition of La Scala big shows: the auto da fe scene seems to have more people on stage than Times Square does before midnight on New Year’s Eve. But the camera helps get up close to Ramey as he soul searches and maps out the fate of the Spanish Empire in his scene with the Grand Inquisitor. It also helps Pavarotti show us that he was not at all a bad actor.

The good – and there is much good and great here – is the honesty of the singing, the dramatic integrity of Pavarotti’s and Ramey’s and D’Intino’s work, the quintessentially Italian sound that seems to permeate every square inch of that theatre before anybody even opens his or her mouth to sing.

And when Dessi opens up into “Tu che la vanità” or when Pavarotti and Coni shake the rafters with “Dio che nell’ alma infondere” you know they mean operatic business. These are big league big voices in a big house singing a big opera.

The “lunga tradizione” of season after season of Verdi, going all the way back to performances conducted by Verdi himself, and then generation after generation of singers is mystical. Ramey stepping onto that stage and knowing that, before him, Siepi and Christoff and Ghiaurov and Pasero and Pinza and Neri and Mardones all knelt at the same or at a similar prix-dieu and sang “Ella giammai m’amò…” is emotional, great stuff.

FALSTAFF

Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Taddei, Rolando Panerai, Francisco Araiza, Raina Kabaivanska, Janet Perry, Trudeliese Schmidt, Christa Ludwig / Herbert von Karajan / Sony

The reading of the score in this 1992 Salzburg Festival is just about perfect. The cast in the video is the cast I was lucky to hear in person in the summer of 1992. The fact that this is preserved for all generations to come to see and hear is nothing short of miraculous.

Karajan handpicked his singer-actors at a time when the veterans were approaching retirement age (Taddei, Kabaivanska, Ludwig, Di Palma, Zednik were pushing their sixties or already there) and the newcomers were fresh out of the conservatory. Thus we get Taddei at age 74 (!) stunning in his ability to still sing a not lean but mean Falstaff.

His outbursts at L’Onore, Laddri! and his vocal blow-by-blow matching of the almost half-his-age Rolando Panerai in the Ford-Falstaff scene is extraordinary. Above all, this is the performance of a lifetime; a complete melding of dramatic instinct, textual understanding and vocal maturity that only comes at the end of a long and illustrious career.

The rewards await us at every turn: Panerai is a sanguine, supple Ford with his ever-reliable Italianate sound. Federico Araiza and Janet Perry are two lovers made in singer’s heaven. The trio of Raina Kavaibanska, Trudeliese Schmidt and Crista Ludwig can not be bettered, managing to be utterly funny and flawlessly musical at the same time.

Not one to stint, Karajan does deluxe casting of the comprimario roles with Piero di Palma and Heinz Zednik, no less, and the young Italian basso Federico Davia as, respectively Bardolf, Caius and Pistol.

With the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit and a rehearsal process rumored to have lasted close to two months, this was bound to exceed perfection. And it does, with Karajan doing double-duty as stage director in a production that is dramatically solid and picture-postcard-pretty in its Elizabethan authenticity and in every visual department, from lighting to sets to the underwear hung out to dry in a clothesline.

This kind of carefully-curated, exhaustibly-rehearsed, fastidiously polished, festival-level production is alarmingly and gradually becoming as quaint a relic of the past as vocal concerts where a singer would sing an all-Lieder program or a chamber music program played outside New York or Chicago. That is a frightening thought.

But it appears that assembly-line opera with productions designed in San Diego, cast in Toronto, rehearsed in Houston and delivered in Miami are the order of the day. A sad day.

MACBETH

Giuseppe Verdi

Thomas Hampson, Paoletta Marrocu, Robert Scandiuzzi, Luis Lima / Franz Welser-Möst; David Pountney, Zurich Opera.

The main reason for including this video in our list is Thomas Hampson in the title role. In this Zurich Opera production recorded live a few years ago, Hampson already evidences utter comfort with the vocal demands of the title role. The Zurich Opera with 1,100 seats is not a Met-size house, and thus allows a mid-career singer such as Hampson was in 1992 to try out a role such as Macbeth before singing it in a large house, which he would do precisely a few years later.

The results could not be better. Hampson’s take on the title role is exemplary, his singing always subservient to the text but never at the expense of the vocal line, which remains at all times firmly anchored in a legato approach Verdi was fond of calling “lunga la frase…

From Due Vaticini – here beautifully partnered by the Italian basso Roberrto Scandiuzzi’s Banquo – Hampson makes a potential voice breaker into a Bel Canto baritone role. Alas, I wish such were the case with Paoletta Marrocu’s Lady M!

Hovering between semi-educated middle-voice parlando and uneducated yelping stabs at the top notes of this most treacherous of all Verdi soprano roles, the Italian soprano sets the tone for her Lady Macbeth right out of the gate with a reading of the letter in a Milanese accent one could slice with a blunt knife.

Her subsequent Vieni t’affretta only approximates the notes Verdi lays down. It is a given that Verdi did not want a beautiful sound from his Lady Macbeth, but sounds – musical sounds – he did want or he would have written the part in Sprechstimme, long before Berg and Schönberg first conceived it. And her sleep-walking scene features neither sleep nor walking, with the soprano on her knees by a white wooden box and a box of used matches and a candle for props. Oh, yes, and a red magic marker with which she is provided to make bloody graffiti on a mirrored wall. All that leads to a high D she should have been advised to skip.

Scandiuzzi has a true lyric basso cantante sound and the requisite authority to bring gravitas to a short but important role. Lima’s “O figli miei…dalla paterna mano” is worth the wait: solid work from a quite underrated tenor.

Pountney’s production is short-changed by inter-galactic costuming and plexiglassy sets that do not advance the cause or integrity of the fine English director’s usual work.

Welser-Möst – known in our neck of the woods as “Franz Worst than Most” due to his listless conducting of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra during its South Florida annual residences, does neither better nor worse here: a by-the-numbers, not very idiomatic interpretation of a Verdi score dependent on a constant give and take between stage and pit. He actually sleepwalks better than the soprano.

But Thomas Hampson may just be the best Macbeth on video.

OTELLO

Giuseppe Verdi

Placido Domingo, Justino Diaz, Katia Ricciarelli / Lorin Maazel; Zeffirelli / MGM

This one just about gets it right: Domingo was at the time of the making of this film the greatest living Otello. His Esultate, Dio mi potevi scagliar and Niun mi tema are exemplary: baritonal in timbre, lyrical when needed, stentorian in a way that recalls Tamagno and Caruso in their recordings of the Moor’s music.

Katia Ricciarelli is gorgeous and so is her singing of Desdemona’s duet with Otello and her last act Ave Maria and Willow Song.

Diaz is a terrific Iago. His bass-baritone is a bit taxed by some of the high-lying passages but he acquits himself with plenty of reserves in the Credo and later sings with a solid mezza voce in Era la Notte.

Although they won’t erase memories of Vickers or McCracken and Glossop or Gobbi in their roles, the Domingo-Diaz pairing is just about the best one on record in DVD format.

Maazel delivers a rock solid reading of the score and Zeffirelli gives us a cinematic masterpiece with world-class production values.

Zeffirelli is really a genius cinematographer and designer. He sets the opera in the proper location and time: Cyprus, in the years after the Battle of Lepanto, a period of time which forever changed the equation in the military dominance of the Eastern Mediterranean and the adjacent regions of the Veneto and of what today (or just yesterday) would have been called Albania and Yugoslavia.

Often accused of being a tired traditionalist, Zeffirelli is, to the mind of this writer, a superb Gesamtkunstwerk artist in the grand old tradition of the director-designers Louis Jouvet, Gordon Craig, and Vsevolod Meyerhold. There are no known instances of clashes between Zeffirelli and singers: his direction is always singer-friendly, logical, organic and endlessly inventive. Even with his stunning flair for the pictorial, his designs always serve the piece and seem to disappear into the background as his singing actors move into the center of his world and inhabit it.

SUMMING THINGS UP…

We predict that long after the enfant terrible auteur-directors of mostly European provenance have vanished along with their auteur hauteur and their Eurotrash sensibility, the work of Zeffirelli will be upheld as some of the best design and directorial art of the 20th century.

Inquiring minds, part two

How come no Rigoletto, no Forza…Ballo…? What are you, some kind of revisionist insurrectionist musicological monster?

We’re just trying to compile a list that includes those operas that we could not live without. Horrible as the thought may be, I could actually never again listen to La Forza del Destino and the course of Western Civilization would not be affected.

A year or a lifetime without another so-so performance of Rigoletto and, frankly, I would not die of a broken heart. Un Ballo in Maschera? Let me just have Bjoerling singing a few highlights and I’ll die happy.

There is one conspicuous absentee from this list: La Traviata. It was, you see, my first opera at age fourteen. Just drop the needle on the first pianissimo strains of the prelude and I’m a wreck. What can I tell you? I’m nuts for Italian opera.

Nöel Coward spoke of the potency of cheap music… Even though La Traviata is anything but cheap, it is so unabashedly sentimental. It would be impossible for us to zero in on one recording of this most heart-on-the-sleeve of all of Verdi’s works. So let us assemble a never-would-happen cast for this most-personally-meaningful opera and I’ll take it to my desert island.

Violetta will be Teresa Stratas – not the prettiest sound in history but a Violetta with the inner fire of a Greek tragic character – which Stratas was. Alfredo would be Rolando Villazón pre-vocal crisis. Our Germont would be Gabriel Bacquier, a baritone who could act as well as sing the role. The production would be designed and directed by Zeffirelli and conducted by Levine. And the course of mankind’s progress would move forward.

An open letter to Chris Dolen

Re: Playhouse drafts comeback plan (Miami Herald)

Hello Chris! As usual you are out there fighting the good fight. I salute you and thank you. I find, however, some deeply wrong-headed concepts at work (or failing to work) in the would-be proposal, as described by you.It would be interesting to see what AMS Planning really plans to plan and, ultimately, who it is that’s going to go out there and raise the dollars to make all the planning a reality.I don’t see many arts school in South Florida bringing in for the arts the big bucks that only football brings. As a community our track record is impeachable on all counts. While city-counties a fraction the size of Miami Dade have superb regional theatres that have survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (Cincinnati and Boston and Hartford to name but one, no, three, in fact) we in Miami Dade have to be content with 4-character play after 4-character play on our fewer and fewer small stages in theatres with 100 to 150 seats. Or, as an alternative, you can take in some of the dumbest musical theatre and tired businessman comedy fare to come down the pike in quite sometime. Right here, in Miami-Dade.GableStage arguably the finest and most successful of our Miami Dade playhouses continues to operate after a dozen plus years in what is essentially a hotel banquet room. The fact that Joe Adler continues to do outstanding work on his stage is nothing short of miraculous. Our finest musical organization is not the financially under-endowed Concert Association or the Florida Grand Opera that still has to import and recycle sets and costumes (just talk to your music critic) but the well-endowed, brilliantly led administratively and artistically New World Symphony. In their case they did not hire some consulting company from out of town but its Musical Director Michael Tilson Thomas had a soul to soul with Ted Arison and, out of that conversation, and after the infusion of several million dollars, the NWSO was born. Today it is a model of its kind worldwide. But does anybody remember the Florida Philharmonic. Oh, well, too bad…I seem to hear.I hope that the gentlemen and ladies of AMS Planning will sit down and talk to some of the people who built some of the outstanding arts organizations in this community. Out of that dialogue something good will surely come out. But someone please ask them not to put the cart before the horse.  Speculating that they will be able to run a 600 seat LORT theatre with an additional 150-seat “blackbox” with an annual budget of 6.5 million is pie-in-the-sky thinking if I ever heard.If the folks who built our performing arts center had ever listened to some of the audience members or some of the arts administrators of the very companies that now occupy it they would have known that they needed a real parking facility and not two but one hall, and bigger lobbies and no. Barbara Cook or the Miami debut of a major World Music artist would not pack the hall(s) But they all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round…Talking about the Court in Chicago or the Yale Rep is unrealistic at best. Both Yale and U of C have huge support for the arts in highly-populated hub cities that have centuries-old traditions of supporting the arts. We all moved here from somewhere else and fifty years ago, no thirty, this was sarcastically known in theatre circles as Death Valley South.In the years I’ve been here I have rarely seen neither corporate nor private support move up to the plate the way Adrienne Arsht did a few days ago.  But speak to Judy Drucker or to Dahlia Morgan, either or both having been miracle workers in this crazy community for years and you’ll hear a different tune that they can whistle by memory.There is a sort of halfway ground between the obscenely inflated salaries of a Michael Hardy or many others whom I can think of but won’t name and the human sweat and tears and blood capital that continues to prop up the existence of many of our small and mid-size organizations. You know…”Can’t pay the rent or make payroll…Oh well, I’ll hold off on my check…” Been there, did that.

None of this seems to matter much to very many. For those for whom it does, here’s my piece.

I won’t close, even though I have already overstayed my welcome, by thanking Michael Spring and his staff at the Department of Cultural Affairs for dreaming the dream and continuing to think outside the box, something I find out of town consultants are not used to doing. They mostly work off formulas. Artists and arts administrators reivent the wheel all the time.

I have serious doubts the Herald would ever print even a small portion of this and, no, I’m not looking for an invitation to the “public sessions” that you mention.  I went to scores of those during my years at the helm of an arts organization. Now I think I’ll just stay home and read a good book. Or I’ll go to the next play of Joe Adler’s.

Rafael de Acha, concerned Dade County resident for over thirty five years.

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