A New Beginning

A New Beginning

Detroit_Opera_House_with_treesFollowing my interests this year has taken me on a winding road of the humanities.  I ended 2015 delving deeper into the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which led me to spend quite a bit of time with his operas.  I was familiar with some of the music from the operas of Mozart, but I worked to acquaint myself with the major operas in their entirety.  Turns out that the Spring season of my local Michigan Opera Theatre is ending in May with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.  I was excited to purchase some inexpensive tickets to performances of four different operas at the Detroit Opera House.

LIbraryOne of the upcoming operas I have a ticket to is Verdi’s Macbeth, with a libretto adapted from the Shakespeare play of the same name.  This fostered a desire to become more familiar with some of the plays of Shakespeare that I wanted to know better.  In reading and watching a dozen or so of the Bard’s plays, and reading about those plays, I was led in the direction of more of the “classics” and “Great Books” of the Western literary tradition.

To make a long story short, this rekindled interest in literature has inspired the creation of a new blog.  This new WordPress site is about books, and I would love to invite all of you to take a peek at it.  Great Books of Old Stream is what I came up with as a name.  The “Great Books” part is probably obvious where it originated from.  The “Old Stream” part is open to your own interpretation.  Thanks for any time you can spare to visit.

Great Books of Old Stream

The Marriage of Figaro

The Marriage of Figaro

By far, the most popular of Mozart’s operas are the three opera buffa that he wrote to libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte.  The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan Tutti are beloved works that are regularly performed to this day.  Opera buffa rose in popularity to overtake opera seria in the middle and late 18th century.  It is a genre of “comic” opera, but the term encompasses everything of the time that is not opera seria.  Opera buffa was popular entertainment for the rising middle class, who began to have disposable income to pursue pastimes they enjoyed.  Where opera seria was a genre supported by the noble and aristocratic audience, opera buffa often featured stories wherein the aristocrats were not portrayed in their best light.  Many stock character types from Italian Commedia dell’arte were reused in opera buffa, and instead of the serious stories borrowed from Greek history, opera buffa used real life persons in real life (often bawdy) situations.  The Marriage of Figaro is a masterpiece of the opera buffa style, featuring two servants who outsmart their aristocratic employers.  

Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro overture

Lorenzo Da Ponte

Lorenzo Da Ponte

Lorenzo Da Ponte was the skilled librettist who wrote the words Mozart set to The Marriage of Figaro.  Da Ponte is a colorful character in his own right.  He was born Emanuele Conegliano, into a Jewish family.  His father later had him baptized into the Catholic faith, as a way to ensure he got an education.  He became a priest, but by no means a model one. In fact, he was thrown out of the priesthood because of adultery.  He was a very talented poet and author of opera libretti, but a horrible businessman.  He gambled and womanized his way, eventually escaping his Italian debts by moving to New Jersey.  In America, he ran failed businesses as a grocer, bookstore owner, and distiller, among other things.  If Lorenzo Da Ponte approached you with a business venture, you should run the other way.

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

Da Ponte adapted The Marriage of Figaro libretto from a play by a Frenchman Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.  Beaumarchais actually wrote a trilogy of plays featuring the character Figaro.  The first play Le Barbier de Seville (The Barber of Seville), was made into an opera by Giovanni Paisiello in 1782, and most famously by Gioachino Rossini in 1816. The last play, La Mere coupable (The Guilty Mother), was made into an opera by Darius Milhaud in 1966, a work I would love to hear if anyone knows of a recording in print.  La Mere coupable also is a subplot “opera within an opera” in John Corigliano’s 1991 opera, The Ghosts of Versailles (a marvelous work). The Marriage of Figaro is the middle play of the trilogy, and was itself banned by censors after Louis XIV saw a reading.  Lorenzo Da Ponte had to make many cuts of controversial scenes to get his libretto to receive approval by the censors.  The objectionable characterizations of the aristocratic class that Da Ponte cut out of the play were quickly put back in by the genius music of Wolfgang Mozart. Napoleon had described The Marriage of Figaro as “the revolution already in action”, a full three years before the French Revolution began in 1789.

For all of its political overtones of street-smart servants outsmarting bumbling aristocrats, The Marriage of Figaro is truly a funny comedy.  The music is genius in the way it portrays the characters, in recitative, aria, and ensembles.  The most famous ensemble has to be the finale of Act II, where two singers start in duet, grow to a trio, then a quartet as more characters enter the scene.  Five, six and seven characters all enter the production in a wonderful scene that encompasses over twenty minutes of continuous music.  Below you can see a video clip that gives you the first six minutes of the finale, to whet your appetite for more.

Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro, Act II finale , Part 1

Wolfgang Mozart

Wolfgang Mozart

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro has been an operatic favorite since its premiere.  The great composer Johannes Brahms said of the work, “In my opinion, each number in Figaro is a miracle; it is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect; nothing like it was ever done again, not even by Beethoven.”  It is truly a masterpiece, but equally astounding is the fact that it took the 30-year-old Mozart only six weeks to write the opera!  I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around the speed with which Wolfgang completed the work.  

Teatro Colón

Teatro Colón

 

Easily, I could go into another few thousand words about the inner workings of The Marriage of Figaro, the conventions of opera buffa, the character archetypes it contains, the arias, the ensembles and on and on.  I still think that knowing some of the technical mechanics of the work can bring out a deeper meaning.  I am also coming to the realization, however,  that knowing how an internal combustion engine works does not show us the reasons why people find sports cars sexy.  (I am from the Motor City, Detroit, Michigan.  Believe me, I know about the love people have for cars.)  There is a book by a sociologist, Claudio E. Benzecry, entitled The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession.  In this book, Benzecry follows a group of opera lovers who frequent the famous  Colón Opera House in Buenos Aires.  There are stories from this largely blue-collar group of fanatics whereby some have traveled hundreds of miles, or camped out all night to get tickets to a performance.  These people are familiar with opera, but the overwhelming message in their stories is their passion for the performance.  They tell how some of their favorite arias move them to tears, they argue about their favorite singers and performances, and overall have a deep and long-lasting love of the art form.  Something sparked this passion in them, long before they learned about the mechanics and conventions of opera.  I can write about all of the theory and technical detail, but what I want to do more than anything is share my passion for Good Music, and spark something similar in someone who reads this blog.

I will try my best.  🙂

The Marriage of Figaro, Synopsis

The Marriage of Figaro, Libretto with English translation

The Marriage of Figaro, complete opera with English subtitles.

Mainly Mozart

Mainly Mozart

As I may have mentioned, I have immersed myself in the works of Wolfgang Mozart in recent weeks. Outside of the time spent at my beloved Detroit Jazz Festival, I have listened almost exclusively to music of Mozart for the last six weeks. A very interesting idea has entered into my thinking during this time, about how we study music history. History is written after the fact of course, looking back and trying to codify what happened. The things we hold out as masterpieces, however, are the innovative compositions that break the molds, rather than exemplify the practice of the time.

Mozart, Overture to “Idomeneo”

When we look at the “Classical” period of European music, it is all about the Viennese classical style. This is a style that emphasizes clarity, balance, refinement, emotional restraint and good taste. Many musical forms came into maturity (sonata-allegro, minuet and trio, theme and variations, rondo, etc), and much of a composer’s goal was to show ingenuity inside these familiar forms. The three names that are held up as the best of the classical style are Haydn, Mozart and the early works of Beethoven. At the same time, although Haydn wrote over 100 symphonies, most of them are not played today. Our best count of Mozart symphonies today is 41, but only a handful are played in the standard repertoire. Why have some stood the test of time and others find themselves rarely performed?

IdomeneoMozart wrote 22 operas, in every popular style of his time, but only a small number are performed today. One of the earliest Mozart operas still in the repertoire, if not THE earliest, is “Idomeneo” of 1781. This is an opera seria, but as I hope to show, it is not a typical one. The libretto (the words) were written by Giambattista Varesco, adapted from a French play written by a fellow named Danchet. The original source of the story, like much of opera seria, is Greek mythology/history. The short version of the story is that Idomeneo, king of Crete, was saved from a shipwreck by Neptune (Greek god of the sea) on his way back from the Trojan war. Neptune has demanded that Idomeneo sacrifice the first person he meets, as a tribute for saving his life. This being opera, the first person he meets is Idamante, his son whom he has not seen for years. Additional dramatic tension is added by the Trojan princess Ilia, who has fallen in love with Idamante in spite of the Greeks killing her father and family. Idamante also loves Ilia, much to the chagrin of Greek princess Elettra, who completely loses composure and vents her spleen in the final Act of the opera. A longer synopsis of the three acts can be found at the link below.

Idomeneo”, opera synopsis.

Elettra’s Act III Aria, “D’Oreste, D’Ajace”

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy

Italian opera seria was an incredibly popular form of entertainment in the late 17th and early 18th century. Hundreds upon hundreds of these operas were written, with new productions happening all the time. These things were churned out like television sitcoms are today. There was very much a standard formula for an opera seria, much of which was codified by the Italian poet Pietro Metastasio. His librettos were set to music repeatedly, by almost every composer of the day. The pattern took a “serious” story from an ancient Greek or Latin text, with a small cast of characters, set in three acts. The acts almost always alternated recitative secco (“dry recitative” accompanied by just harpsichord and bass) with arias for solo voice and full orchestra. These da capo arias were vocal showpieces for the stars, the singers. Boy oh boy, did the singers know they were the stars of the show. They made all sorts of demands on the composer, added their own embellishments, and sometimes had the production substitute an entirely different aria just because they wanted to. According to historian Donald Grout, these practices degraded the aria to “mere tasteless displays of vocal acrobatics.” This kind of spectacle, however, was much of what the audience came to see.

Carlo Broschi 'Il Farinelli' (1705-82), one of the most famous Male sopranos of his day.

Carlo Broschi ‘Il Farinelli’ (1705-82), one of the most famous Male sopranos of his day.

Many of the opera seria featured a unique sort of male soprano, the famed Italian castrato. These singers were superstars, well, some of them were. There was a practice at the time in Italy that few wanted to admit to. In Florence, they said it happened in Naples. In Naples, then said go to Milan. It happened to thousands of Italian boys, so somewhere it was being done. A young pre-pubescent boy that showed vocal promise was brought to a shop to be castrated, thus preventing their voice from dropping octaves when they hit (or didn’t hit) puberty. Drastic action, to be sure, but just imagine if your son could be Michael Jordan, David Beckham and a Hollywood movie star all rolled into one. This is what was dreamed of being achieved by becoming a star castrato, a male soprano with more power than any similar female voice. These boys were immediately taken for intensive musical training, and the successful ones were absolutely worshipped. Families in poverty would bring their sons for such a practice in the hopes they would lift the family into financial success. The big problem with the practice is that these boys still grew, the voice matured, and you never knew exactly what you would end up with as an adult. Although many went through the operation, only a small number went on to be stars.

The role of Idamante in Mozart’s opera was originally written for a castrato named Vincenzo dal Prato. This creates a bit of a problem for staging the opera today, as the practice was banned long ago, and those sort of male sopranos don’t exist anymore. One solution is to make Idamante a “trouser role”, that is played by a female soprano in male costume. This is a pretty good solution in live performance or on video, because you can suspend disbelief and realize that the woman in pants singing is playing a character that is a dude. It doesn’t work as well in audio recordings, because there is no mistaking that it is a female voice. The other solution is to convert the Idamante role to that of a tenor, singing the part an octave lower than originally written. This works better for recordings, and was actually done in at least one production during Mozart’s lifetime.

Getting back to my main point about the music of Mozart that is still performed and  studied, “Idomeneo” is no typical opera seria. It is a serious story, borrowed from Greek sources, but it does not follow the formulaic pattern of recitative-aria-recitative-aria. Mozart has improved on the model, and incorporated some of the reforms started by Gluck (perhaps the earliest composer in the standard repertoire today). Mozart’s version has some recitative secco, but also plenty of recitative accompagnato where the entire orchestra plays under the singer. There are beautiful arias, but also more a frequent use of duets and trios than one usually finds in opera seria. Mozart also creates brilliant harmonic segues, where the end of one number moves directly into the next. The musical fabric is almost seamless and connected, all in service of the dramatic storyline. “Idomeneo” is not about singers showing off, but is now an operatic masterpiece uniting music, words and drama. Professor Robert Greenberg calls it an “opera seria transcendent” for the way it rises above the normal conventions of early 18th century Metastasian opera seria.

The realization I am trying to convey here is that you cannot listen to “Idomeneo” and decide you love it, want to hear more like it, and start searching out the usual fare that was opera seria. Although we study Haydn and Mozart for what is the best of the Classical Period, the thing that makes “Idomeneo” great is that it is NOT typical of its time. Old Wolfy has improved upon the formula, expanded things, brought innovation and genius to the experience. This is why we still listen to “Idomeneo” as a masterpiece today, and not some of the 10 or 11 operas Mozart wrote before this one. There is a tendency in art and music history to pull out the original and innovative things as noteworthy and exceptional, but these don’t always represent what was typical or usual of the time. For the same reasons we celebrate Beethoven’s Third symphony, the “Eroica”, for smashing classical era conventions and bringing a newly expressive heroic voice to the symphony, rather than say his First symphony, which more or less follows the classical norms. We pay much more attention to things that break the rules, with genius and originality, than works of art that follow the rules.

That is mainly a lesson for music and art, and not life in general. While some individuals break all the rules and are celebrated as trailblazing innovators, if one breaks too many rules there are people in uniform that lock you up. They put you in handcuffs, stuff you in the back of a car, and then you pay a lawyer a lot of money to do a lot of talking while you sit in a small room with bars. When you are in that small room with bars, if you start shouting you are a genius like Mozart or Beethoven, someone calls a doctor with lots of initials behind their name to do even more talking. Life plans can derail quite quickly this way, so I would suggest keeping the serious rule breaking to musical conventions and not local ordinances.

Mozart, “Idomeneo” complete opera