February 5, 2014

Opera. Yes.


I lay in bed last night listening* to Aethelstan playing chimney-pot rugby with his buds.  And today pretty much the entire Soggy Bottom road is under water, not just the bridge over the ford—and the lake at the Gormless Pettifogger** crossroads is back.  You can just turn around and go the other way, as some people do, and in another couple of inches I will too, but at the moment the small sea still passable by anyone who isn’t glamorously low-slung.  Wolfgang is neither glamorous nor low-slung.  So having ascertained there’s no one in the immediate vicinity who is going to plunge in before you, you take a deep breath, aim for the centre of the ominously shimmering water***, put your foot down and hold your nerve because your bow wave will briefly wipe out the view through your windscreen and if you stop you’ll stall.

Diane in MN

. . . Years ago, I took someone who didn’t have any experience of opera to see Butterfly, and it just about knocked her over. . . .

The first Butterfly I ever saw live, which was well into my opera-going career—largely because it wasn’t a favourite and so I wasn’t in any hurry to spend opera-ticket prices on it—included a Butterfly tittuping briskly onto the stage just before she sings Un bel di, wearing some kind of faux-Japanese footgear and . . . taking a spectacular header full length on the floor.  WHAMOw.  Suzuki, who didn’t have a stage direction for this, just stood there with her mouth open†.  Butterfly, poor thing, pulled herself together, staggered to her feet . . . and sang.  In her defense, this was a touring company—I think it may have been the Met, back in the days when the Met still toured—so this was an unfamiliar stage with unknown hazards.   This sort of thing must happen to touring companies kind of a lot.  But I remember almost nothing else of the production—haven’t a clue who was singing, for example.

But opera doesn’t lend itself to realism (say I), it’s not what it’s for.

I think this is quite right. . . . I’ve always felt that the plots are secondary to the music anyway: the texts chosen by a composer might not hold up for a century or more, but the music is about emotional truth and that stays relevant and keeps us coming back.

Boldface mine.  TAKE THAT, RICHARD STRAUSS.  Yes.  Absolutely.  You can’t worship at—say—the Verdian shrine, which I do, faithfully, and maintain any dignity arguing in favour of equal textual validity.††  But the music is about emotional truthYes.


. . . About ugly Americans and Kate showing up completely inappropriately off a US Navy warship… it’s an exotic opera, right? 19th (and early 20th) century Europe was obsessed with the Exotic Other… anyone outside the pale of “civilized” Europe. There are so many exotic tropes: childlike, naive (Butterfly) cruel, barbarian (Turandot), controlled by feelings more than reason (Butterfly and Turandot both), and over-sexualized (Pinkerton). The thing that’s hard to remember (at least if you’re American alive during US-as-world-superpower era) is that Pinkerton is every bit as exotic as Butterfly in that opera. It’s an Italian opera… Americans were exotic to Italians. So I don’t find it at all surprising that the librettist wouldn’t’ve checked his facts about who would’ve been allowed on a Navy warship: facts don’t matter when you’re writing about exotic peoples. They are the Other—we get to project on them whatever we want. . . .

I know you’re the professional musician with the PhD in music history and I’m not but . . . I don’t agree.  Or don’t accept this argument as adequate.  Chiefly for two reasons:  first.  Butterfly was written after the turn of the last century, and Puccini lived till the ‘20s.  I know they didn’t have the internet yet (!) but sheer bloody parochialism is always with us and is no excuse—just by the way, Americans are still exotic in, let’s say, rural Hampshire, England, in 2014, which blows my mind.  But a hundred years ago is not the Palaeolithic.  By 1900 you had precious little excuse for officially having no clue about the reality of other nations—or for not bothering to check big fat crude factoids like whether or not wives are permitted on US Navy warships.  Second.  These verismo bozos don’t get to have it both ways:  either there’s a veneer of genuine realism on their work or there isn’t.  I still call it a melodrama, not verismo†††, but part of what makes Butterfly both so effective and so infuriatingly manipulative is the gloss of ‘reality’.  The reason Butterfly works for me is because her role is so devastatingly magnificent:  her last aria, as she’s about to kill herself, is shattering.  And it carries me over seeing Kate trailing up the hill behind Pinkerton calling Butterfly!  Butterfly!  A lesser piece of work and Kate would throw me out of the story—and the agony—altogether.‡

I love Un Ballo in Maschera—which premiered the year after Puccini was born, in the mid-1800s—and that it’s supposedly laid in Puritan Boston doesn’t bother me in the slightest.  But, as I said about La Trav the other night, Verdi never wrote anything close to verismo as it’s usually defined:  he gets into people’s hearts amazingly‡‡ but most of his librettos are trash.  I’m also aware that Un Ballo got moved to a Boston locale for tricky European political reasons—speaking of exotic:  oh, the barbaric North Americans won’t care—but my point is it doesn’t matter.  It’s backdrop.  That’s all it is.  Fifty years later operas are beginning to be integrated into their storylines.  I know the march of progress isn’t a united front, but for example Jenufa was pretty much contemporary with Butterfly!!

And I’d better shut up before you get your PhD off the mantelpiece and wallop me with it. . . .


. . . my most common stabby thought while playing opera was always along the lines of “Can we PLEEEEASE stab the soprano now (maybe even by the end of the first act!) so we don’t have to play for her dying for the next 15 pages (exaggeration but not by all that much!)??” My biggest frustration with playing opera in general is that, yes, there are some absolutely ravishing parts of operas, but there is so much else that is just plain endurance on the part of the orchestra! At least the audience has the floor show (so to speak) to watch while the tenor or soprano repeats things over and over. . . .


Hey, that’s a thought.  It’s still (comparatively) early.  I could sing.

* * *

* ‘Sleeping’?  What would that be?

** Not my favourite pub.

*** Maybe it already is that extra couple of inches deep and I’m about to be very embarrassed and have to ring the RAC to send someone with chains and very high tailpipe clearance to rescue me.

† Not very living the role of her.

†† Ernani?  HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.  Il Trovatore?  HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. La Forza del Destino?  HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. . . . Stop, stop, you’re killing me. . . .

††† Il Tabarro?  Verismo?  Oh, right, wrapping your wife’s lover, whom you’ve just murdered, up in your cloak, so you can have the big reveal and spook her the frell out^, YES.  VERY REALISTIC.  VERY, VERY REALISTIC.  Melodrama.  One of the things that bites me about this story is that you have that sad and touching (in that manipulative way Puccini is so good at) scene earlier where the jerk of a husband turns all wistful and says they used to be happy together before the baby died and you think, oh, poor them, no wonder they’re having problems . . . and I’d even go with the murder.  Unhappy husband presented with worst fear:  his wife’s much-younger lover.  I DO NOT GO WITH THE WRAPPING THE CORPSE IN HIS CLOAK.  Husband is still wearing the cloak, you understand.  GROSS ME THE FRELL OUT.  Melodrama.

^ How to ruin someone’s day big time

‡ I may also be a trifle preoccupied with what a thankless role Kate’s is as it’s usually presented.

‡‡ I will take one Verdi to seventeen Puccinis any day.  Just by the way.


Singing and a ’cello


I had FOUR new songs to learn, or to try on for size and choose from, the last fortnight, since Nadia, the lazy slut, was taking Easter Monday off,* they just don’t make voice teachers like they used to.**  And then I had flu.***  I’ve only been really singing for about the last three days.†  So, at rather a pelt, I learnt a song and a half:  Long Time Ago arranged by Aaron Copland†† and half of When Daisies Pied by Thomas Arne†††. 

            In some ways the increasing gap between what I do or can do at home and what I do or can do for Nadia is INCREASINGLY FRUSTRATING.  I do my most emotive singing . . . mostly over the washing-up.  Please.  But there’s something about having something that is just slightly distracting‡ to do with your hands and about one-tenth of your brain, as well as no audience‡‡, that enables all kinds of freedom.  I caught myself breaking my heart over the dead Eurydice some time this weekend . . . and of course the moment I noticed it went away and I couldn’t get it back.  Arrrrgh.  But in terms of sheer howling frustration at the perversity of self-consciousness . . . I was doing scales at the sink.  It was, again, some time this weekend.  I’d been singing for a day or two at that point but this was my first attempt to get back into my top end.  Oh dear, I thought, that A is still very squeaky.  So I went to the piano because sometimes having the piano to lean on is comforting.  And it wasn’t the A.  It was the BI don’t have a B—yet—but I’ve thought I probably will because I have the A# most of the time at home and an occasional chalkboard squeal above that.  This was definitely a B, and while it was far from a thing of beauty, it was real enough that if I could make it on demand it would be useful in a choir where I’m being covered up by a lot of better Bs.‡‡‡

            Of course it only lasted long enough for me to go, glibberglingglang, that’s a B!  That’s a real, live B!  Whereupon it went away so emphatically I could barely hack my way to the A.  Siiiiiiiigh. 

            When I went in today the first thing Nadia did was make me do a lot of physical stretches to get the bits reconnected since, post-flu, they’ve all shut down in postures of rigid defense.  The point being that I was even singing badly . . . but I had still managed to produce that top B I don’t have (yet) simply because I knew I had had flu and wasn’t expecting much.   ARRRRRRGH.

            She then asked me what, of whatever I was singing, I’d most like her input on, and I pulled out Long Time Ago.  And here’s the thing . . . she didn’t say anything about the notes and all that basic stuff (despite the fact that they are not perfect).  She went immediately into phrasing and interpretation. 

            You know this improvement scam is kind of intimidating. . . . 


cicatricella wrote on Fri, 13 April 2012 22:02

Re: the violoncello thing. I know not how it might apply to voice, and why there would be both a ‘cello’ and a ‘violoncelle’, but ‘cello’ is actually an abbreviation (or was originally anyway). ‘Cello’ is a diminutive in Italian and a ‘violoncello’ is a ‘little (contra)bass’. That’s why some books (especially older ones) write it ” ‘cello”


Yep. So the performer who listed it as “cello” was probably a nice enough person, and the performer who listed it as “violoncelle” was full of themselves.  

I did wonder.  It’s the ‘violoncelle’ performer that we missed.  The cello player was a nice young man—and I think I remember he placed in the instrumental category.  I did know about the “ ’cello” from reading lots of old books, but I assumed that since this was in some other language it must be some other instrument. 

Diane in MN

Unfortunately he’s not the least interested in opera and unless he has a voice teacher at some point who wakes him up to the glories of the operatic repertoire I think we’ll lose him to the West End. Feh.

How good are you at subverting voice teachers? 

SNORK.  That approach hadn’t occurred to me.  Well, the family have been threatening to move south, to be nearer the rest of the clan. . . . 
I didn’t hear Traviata this afternoon and from your description, I would have disliked the production a whole lot. As when:
[. . .] she realises he’s asking her to give up Alfredo forever SHE TAKES HER DRESSING-GOWN OFF and trails around in her slip. Oh gods how I hate the wandering around in your underwear to indicate vulnerability and innocence thing. (She does it again later at the party. [. . .])
This would have taken me right outside the performance, 

YES.   THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT IT DOES.  ‘Surreal’ has rules (even if I’m not sure what they are) just like ‘fantasy’ does, and if you break them, you ruin the story, and the spell.  The end of the first act, when she’s singing about how she has to be free, and then she hears Alfredo off stage singing about the power of love, in his wet way, and it stops her . . . in this staging, he comes on stage and confronts her, although I think you don’t have to know the standard set-up to recognise the dream-like quality of it here:  she is confronting herself really.  And it works.  That’s one of the things that works a treat.  It’s hard to believe that someone who came up with this would also come up with trailing around in your slip. 

even if other elements (like Alfredo in his underwear) had failed to do so.  

Indeed.  I was having a little trouble, although I would have coped, with the cabbage roses.  The boxer shorts broke my suspension of disbelief snap.  Reasons Never to Be A Stage Actor:  your director can make a fool of you and there’s nothing you can do about it. 

I dislike and am distracted by staging that wants to trump the music or libretto or both.  Aaargh. It’s too bad that on top of that, the singers were not at their best. 

Yes.  And part of the frustration is that a good deal of this staging was really interesting.  But . . . I was talking to someone else who saw it, who agreed that Dmitri sang like a stick.  It may have been characterisation—Papa Germont is a stick—but it was not a good choice. 


I haven’t seen many productions of La Trav, but I’ve yet to see one in which the 2nd act didn’t bore me. (Well, except for Papa Germond’s aria. He’s being a jerk, but oh! is it gorgeous music.) This includes two of Zeffirelli’s stagings. Maybe the act is simply hard to stage effectively. 

We-ell. . . . I wouldn’t say boring, myself, but then I love the opera too much.  I do absolutely know what you mean.  For me the music, well sung, can deal with anything (and Dessay, even not in top voice, was well worth watching, and I’d see her in it again without hesitation).  What I guess happens with me is that I look forward to all three scenes, and I would have said that it’s pretty hard to get both Germont and Violetta and the party scene wrong, they’re both oozy with easy drama.  All right, it’s not hard:  put Violetta in her dressing gown, and then make her take it off, and then wander brokenly around the rest of the stage pulling all the cabbage roses off the furniture.  ARRRRGH.  Anyway.  It shouldn’t be hard to stage both those scenes.  The rough one is the one between Papa the Thug and Alfredo the Wet Brat. 

              And yes, since you ask, I’m insane, we knew that, I’d love a chance to try. . . . 

* * * 

* I think this was a toddler-minding problem rather than a desire to loll around at home in her dressing-gown all day eating bonbons and watching soap operas.  


^ Drama queen?  What?  Clearly you don’t take music lessons from a Nadia. 

*** I know.  I still owe you a what? blog about how the New Thing came to be.  It may be some help if I mention now that ‘raving with fever’ had something to do with it.

 † And I still have one spectacularly blocked ear which is very, very boring.  

†† http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-D8wqsmkYT8  So I have a thing for baritones.  Sue me.  Of the half dozen that come up immediately on YouTube this is my favourite.  And having listened to all of the ones I liked twice (and this one three times) I have STOPPED because Nadia doesn’t like me listening to YouTube—I told you this, that she believes that you pick up interpretations without meaning to and she wants her students making their own mistakes.  And their own not-mistakes.  As recently as when I was first learning Dove Sei I thought she was straining at gnats with me—I could certainly see why she’d be thinking about this with a student who, you know, had a real voice and was really singing—but . . .

               Um.  Okay.  Yes.  I’ve crossed that line too.^  Granted that Long Time Ago (or When Daisies Pied) is a simple song, but my excuse for heading for YouTube was to learn the actual line as quickly as possible without worrying about my eccentric piano-playing.  But I was pretty much ignoring the melody because I knew I could pick it up, and listening to the phrasing.  How does he do that—oh.  Oops. 

It is amazing, as I take more lessons and crawl slowly forward in the singing, how much more I can hear in others’ singing. 

Yes.  Exactly.  I’ve been aware of it increasingly—as I mentioned again on Friday after the Pan-galactic finals, that your listening is different in kind if you’re having even a feeble and talent-free stab at doing whatever-it-is yourself.  But I don’t think I had realised till I started listening to good professional singers singing Long Time Ago the other night just how far down this road I’ve come.  Oh wow.  Look.  Elephants.  Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.  

All I need is more work, more work, more work, and no other things interrupting it. (Bwah-ha-ha-ha! she sings, with expression and only the right amount of vibrato. . . .

Well . . . that might be true with you people with voices.  It’s certainly true that I could use more practise time to good effect but . . . I’m still going to hit the wall with this voice-equivalent sooner rather than later.  Good reasons to keep singing off the McKinley Obsession List. 

My friend Susan . . . mentioned today that a great contralto died a few days ago at age 90, Lili Chookasian. I knew nothing about her, but Susan gave a link to one of her recordings and I was completely wiped out by it, tears and all. Well below both our ranges, on the low end, but in case you’re interested, here’s a link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrZTUm8IUAU&feature=relat ed 

Oh my.  Yes.  (Which is why I’m sticking it in here, for musical blog-readers who don’t look at the forum.)  I would love Kathleen Ferrier anyway, but I also love her because she’s the only true contralto I’ve pretty much ever frelling heard of. 

              I also sing Blow the Wind Southerly and even though I love the song and there’s no reason I shouldn’t, still . . . why?  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjvHg9cBriw ^^  

^ For better and worse.  Generally speaking I’m fine with the fact that I’m not going to be a (very) late-flowering Beverly Sills.  But I do kind of catch myself wishing that I had the chops+ to be a big frog in even a very small pond.   Some of this is worrying about the future of the Muddles:  I’ve told you we’re going to be getting a new director and Who Knows.  And thanks to having more throat trouble this last year than I have had since I was a bronchitis-prone preteen and that the Muddles have lots of long breaks from rehearsal, I’ve never quite fully committed to them.  If our new leader wants us singing medleys of old Beatles hits I’ll be out of there so fast I’ll give myself road burn.  

+ Er . . . croaks? 

^^ And Che Faro.  And He Was Despised.  And O Waly Waly.  She sang a lot of my favourite repertoire.  And I am a glutton for self-punishment.  

 ††† http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxiTrRwsW0E  

‡ There are good musical moments out with hellhounds too.^  But you can never afford to be too distracted from continuously scanning your surroundings for sudden perils.  And I’ve never had a spoon or a tea mug leap out of my hands and go scalding off after a rabbit. 

^ Even if Chaos will not stop looking up at me earnestly when I sing.  When we’re out hurtling he trots at my side.  At home he gets out of the nice comfy dog bed to stand near me and stare.   No, I’m not in pain.  Go away.   

‡‡ Other than a deranged hellhound.  

‡‡‡ Or at least Griselda.  You really only need Griselda.

La Trav and other less salubrious topics


The delicate, easily disturbed and faint-hearted should look away NOW.  (You can skip down to the opera review.)  


So, what is the worst thing?  The very, very worst thing?

            Think about it a minute.  I can wait.

            Hint:  It has to do with dogs

            Do I see a certain dawning horror in your eyes?

            Yes.  That’s right.  It’s when your plastic bag breaks and you find yourself holding a NAKED HANDFUL OF DOG SHIT.*  And have I mentioned lately that hellhounds, due to their little digestive issues, tend to produce squishy excreta? 

            I was also wearing fingerless gloves at the time.  So maximum vileness, disgustingness and destruction of personal property.**

            I WILL NEVER USE THIS BRAND OF PICK UP BAGS AGAIN.  Part of the complete scenario here is that I know these bags are, ahem, crap, but I was loath to throw out the rest of the packet not because it was a waste of my money—pick up bags are cheap—but because I worry about all that additional plastic in the environment that town-dwelling dog-owners produce and so I’ve gone on using them checking them carefully first.  HITHERTO the breakages have been visible as soon as you drag the thing open to use it.  Not today.

            And no, we weren’t even on the river walk at the time, with nice easily available water.

            I will spare you the details of the rest of the walk home.  In this case hurtle is an understatement.


* * *

I wasn’t sure even La Traviata, my favourite opera, could save this day.  When I was failing to get to Manon last week due to the remains of the lurgy I was telling myself that NOTHING was going to stop me going to La Trav this week.  NOTHING.  And in fact nothing did.  Not even the need to keep washing my hands every five minutes. 

            It was Natalie Dessay’s first Violetta† and I’m a big fan of Dessay—she’s an actor as well as a singer, so you don’t have to close your eyes and concentrate on the music.  And she had Matthew Polenzani as her Alfredo—and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as her Papa Germont.  What could go wrong? 

            Well, the first thing is the production—it’s the famous Willy Decker Red Dress, Big Clock and Doctor Death production.  I’m embarrassed to say I’m not sure if I’ve seen it before or not.  I don’t like surreal††, so it’s not naturally going to, ahem, sing to me.  And there was a lot of it I didn’t remember—but there was quite a bit I seemed to remember so . . . whatever.  Maybe that’s all part of the surreality.  At least with this team a lot of it did work.  One of the built-in problems with La Trav is that Alfredo, the romantic hero, is a nasty, spoilt, self-centred little wet.  I don’t know how he does it, but Polenzani is good at making wet-tenor characters you badly want to slap understandable and appealing.  He managed it here, but this is also one of the things the production (I think) gets right:  he is really persecuted by the dissolute crowd Violetta hangs out with and you can sympathize with him going a little off the rails. 

            Another inherent problem is that the only reason you know Violetta is dying of consumption is because the plot says so.†††  What you see is some singer strong enough to carry an extremely demanding role.  In this production Violetta totters onto the stage during the overture, spends some time bent over coughing (silently) and has her first encounter with Doctor Death.  So you’re set up for the situation.  And you see her pull herself together and morph into the heartless courtesan as the party starts.  (This is the sort of thing Dessay is really good at too.)  And she periodically addresses herself to the doctor during the action, which reminds you that she’s under a death sentence.   I thought this worked really well.

            The things that didn’t work so well . . . in the first place, poor Dessay was having an off night.  You could hear it, and during the intermission interview she said as much—and you could see her dismay in her face.  I’d guess her to be a perfectionist, possibly beyond the perfectionism any Met singer needs, and here she is in her first Violetta, which is one of the plum soprano roles, at the Met, and on the Live in HD night broadcast across the globe. . . she’s having to nurse her voice along and still isn’t quite succeeding.  Her speaking voice sounds like she has a head cold, but that wouldn’t necessary screw up her singing voice.  Except that it did.

            After a killer first act—Alfredo’s wooing and her response is especially effective—I thought most of the second act sucked pond scum.  The basic stage set is very stark, which is fine, and the beginning of the second act, when Violetta and Alfredo are tucked up in their jolly country love-nest, everything is draped with great swathes of fabric covered in big fat pink and red cabbage roses.  Duh.  Okay.  Got it.  They’re wearing dressing-gowns of the same stuff and—first mistake—our hero, under his dressing-gown, is wearing an ordinary business shirt and boxer shorts.  This is not a look even a major heart-throb could bring off, and the pudgy Polenzani does not succeed.  The business of Alfredo finding out that Violetta is bankrupting herself to keep him in the style to which he has become accustomed is bungled . . . and then Papa Germont shows up.  Violetta is  still in her dressing-gown.  What?  She’s an effing courtesan and this is the seriously bourgeois dad of her lover.  She would be rupturing herself to be as proper as possible—and when he starts out being rude and she says that she’s a lady in her own house—done well this is terrific putdown but SHE’S IN HER DRESSING-GOWN.  And . . . the awful truth is that I was not convinced by my hero Dmitri.  He sang well but . . . but . . .

            And then when she realises he’s asking her to give up Alfredo forever SHE TAKES HER DRESSING-GOWN OFF and trails around in her slip.  Oh gods how I hate the wandering around in your underwear to indicate vulnerability and innocence thing.  (She does it again later at the party.  OH STOP IT.)  The face-off between dad and son is no better.  This is an inherent problem that this production did not solve.  Dad starts the ‘come home to your loving family’ routine just as Alfredo has read the letter from Violetta saying she’s leaving him, so he’s not at his most relaxed and persuadable.  And the poor actor playing Alfredo doesn’t really have anything to DO except fulminate for several minutes while dad sings.  I’ve never seen this done persuasively.  In this case they made it worse by Papa slugging his son . . . and then instantly dropping back into his ‘all is forgiven’ refrain.  What?  Who needs to forgive whom here?  Papa Germont is the most awful thug to begin with.  He doesn’t need any help.

            The third act was a mixed bag.  I was smarting from the second act—and there’s no way to get around the fact that the reason the Germonts come to see her is because they know she’s dying and won’t mess up Papa’s snug little middle-class life much longer.  Although the surrealism does mean that they get away with the doctor saying authoritatively ‘she has only hours to live’ which kind of whacks your suspension of disbelief in most stagings;  and that there isn’t a bed solves the problem of whether Violetta, with only hours to live, gets out of it and runs around or not.  And Dessay is a very, very good actor.  I usually do burst into tears at the end—indeed I feel all coitus interruptus if I don’t—but I didn’t have to think about it this time.  I was totally heartbroken. 

            Oh, and that second leg-warmer is almost done.

 * * *

* I admit this may tie for first place with projectile diarrhoea indoors, which I also have some direct experience of, but despite the sheer grossness factor the really distressing part of that isn’t the clean up but the throat-closing, heart-squeezing worry about your critter.  

** Can These Gloves Be Saved?  Probably not.  I’ll boil the right one a few times, but . . . probably not. 

*** I’ve washed my hands so often the skin is coming off.^ 

^ Will I Ever Use My Right Hand Again.+ 

+ Probably.  Typing one-handed is a ratbag.  And while I can use chopsticks with my left hand, it’s not a fun time. 

† At the Met, anyway.  I think she said in the intermission interview it was her first ever. 

†† I like practical fantasy.  I like the magic to have rules, and I want to know where the latrines are and if they’ve got good drainage. 

††† And whoever wrote this year’s synopsis is a moron.  It begins:  ‘Violetta Valery knows that she will die soon, exhausted by her restless life as a courtesan.’  SHE’S DYING OF TUBERCULOSIS, YOU CRETIN.  Her lifestyle is certainly contributing to the speed of her decline, but if that were all that was wrong with her she’d last a good while yet.

Singing while hysterical


The day did not get off to a great start when I asked Peter why he still hadn’t taken Wolfgang’s paperwork to the Post Office (which is the standard way of doing it over here*) to get this year’s sticker, which he had said he would do.  —I only think of this after Peter has gone to bed, of course, and have then forgotten by morning again.  Clearly Peter has only thought of it in the morning, before I get down to the mews.  I haven’t got a copy of the insurance, he finally said to me today.  What?  Peter doesn’t drive any more, but he’s still on the form and should still have a copy of the new one.  No.

            . . . Neither do I.  Now I am a total flake with my head full of bell methods and Benjamin Britten folk song arrangements** and puppies and the rival virtues of beginning kanji books, but I’m usually pretty reliable about basic life stuff.  Like the frelling insurance policy for the frelling car.  BUT I COULDN’T FIND IT.  PAAAAAAAAAAAAAANIC.  Peter, however***, rang the insurance company, where a nice friendly woman said oh, yes, this happens all the time, we’ll put a copy in the post TODAY.  Now I get to start worrying about the frelling Royal Mail.  Yes, a first-class envelope should get here by tomorrow or at least Wednesday . . . but if it doesn’t arrive till after 5 pm on Thursday, first I will enshroud our local PO in aerosol Cool Whip†, and then I will drive to Muddlehampton practise anyway on the assumption that traffic cops will not be out in force after dark on a small back road in the wilds of Hampshire.

            Anyway.  I was not only hysterical but shrill with adrenaline by the time Peter rang the insurance company, and due to baby-sitting difficulties Nadia had asked if I could have my voice lesson early today . . . so I had to leap into the perilously-poised-on-the-brink-of-illegality Wolfgang and bolt away not having sung myself in first.

            It was going to be a DISASTER.

            It wasn’t a disaster.  How did that happen?  This breathing thing, this opening your mouth and letting the air in without making a big deal of it, this is really cool.  You just sort of breathe and everything settles down and you have all these possibilities.  Although Nadia says that for my next trick I want to learn to sound like I’m enjoying myself.  O Waly Waly wasn’t too bad but Dove Sei . . . hey, it’s an aria from an opera.  This is very threatening to the amateur coward.†† 


Did you hear that the Met is going to put on ‘Rigoletto’ this coming season? Set in the ’60’s Las Vegas. With the Rat Pack, mobsters and all that.  Yikes. Glad I watch it on the radio. 

Ewwwww.  I saw Jonathan Miller’s famous New York mafia version in some revival or other and I might have liked it better if I’d seen the original, when it was a new idea.  As it was I didn’t like it at all.  I thought it was sordid for the sake of being sordid, and I think what makes opera work—at least 19th century swirly romantic opera—is that it’s not sordid, even when some of the characters are.†††  Since Miller I swear everything has been given a New York mafia version:  Turandot.  The Magic Flute.  Eugene Onegin.‡  So now it’s Las Vegas?  Uggh.  Clearly this is one I’m going to watch on the radio too. 


I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard at an opera synopsis since I heard Anna Russell explain Seigfried’s women relations in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. 

Since I consider Anna Russell to be the apex of the musical food chain, I am deeply flattered.  

Diane in MN

That great icon of nineteenth-century French literature, Victor Hugo, is responsible for this farrago. 

Yes, Hugo is responsible for Rigoletto too—don’t know if there are any more Verdi operas to accuse him of ruining the libretto of?‡‡  The funny thing is that Peter says that he thinks the original Hugo play isn’t quite the platter of reeking lunacy that ERNANI clearly is.  Someone with good working French could look it up. 

According to the radio commentary, Verdi chose this play over some other subject and closely supervised his librettist.

WHAT?  I knew Verdi was one of my heroes it is a very good thing I never met.  And if I catch the rascal in the Elysian Fields some day we are going to have words.  GAAAAAH.  ERNANI is the sort of drooling nonsense that makes you throw popcorn at the screen and yell, HIRE ME! ‡‡‡ 
The commentary also referred to Elvira as a feisty sort of girl, at least as far as telling the king–she, too, being unsure of what exactly he was offering her–that his proposal (proposition?) was either too noble or too base for her. 

Yes.  I am probably wrong, because I don’t think Verdi or his librettist was particularly interested in making the mere girl clever, but this is one of the bits that I thought worked—and it made me want to rewrite the rest of the scene to fit.  I heard it that she was extrapolating from what he was saying—which was mushy seducer’s drivel—and turning it into something precise that she could then scorn. 

If she’d been seriously feisty, after listening to Silva and Ernani going on about the horn and the knife and the poison in the last act, she’d have grabbed the knife and stabbed Silva instead of herself, putting the frelling testosterone-poisoned boy idea of honor in its place. 

Yes, although slightly in her defense, Ernani sends her on a wild goose chase to get her off stage while he moans to de Silva about his miserable childhood (which is course terribly relevant).  When she gets back she is perhaps understandably nonplussed by the situation.  I was so busy that night frothing at the mouth about the wide and lurid range of the plot insanity that I never got around to saying that Elvira does in fact stand up for herself—and that Meade plays her as such.  She’s still a Verdi heroine, and it would certainly be possible to turn her into a wailing little victim—which Meade with, one assumes, some help from the director, signally does not do.  Hvorostovsky makes an excellent job of being a brute, but Meade is the only character you could bother having empathy with.  Despite her curious partiality for Ernani.  Although I suppose given her other choices. . . . §

I agree with you about the singing, though. And Hvorostovsky. 

No even remotely heterosexual woman with circulating blood in her veins would disagree with me about Hvorostovsky.  


I think the ROH ought to ask you to do the plot synopses in the programme leaflets for their repertoire. Although I suppose the sound of an entire audience giggling might tend to detract somewhat from the dramatic tension of what was happening on stage? 

No, no, it would widen their audience base.  It’s a great idea!  Who do I send the highly professional inquiry, with appended samples, to? 

* * *

*Yes, you can now do it on line.  We’re old, okay? 

** I sang for Oisin last Friday for the first time in . . . yonks.^  And after acknowledging, in what I don’t want to believe was a surprised way, that I’ve got louder, he REALLY ACTUALLY LITERALLY IN FACT SUGGESTED that we try some of the Britten folk songs again.  Yaaaaaay.  They’re huge fun, but hairy, because the accompaniment has nothing to do with what you’re singing and, well, if you know Britten’s music, he . . . had an interesting mind.  I also like to think that there was a certain amount of friendly self- and mutual-torture going on, since he wrote at least some of the folk song arrangements for his partner Peter Pears and himself to perform together.  Old married couples . . .  

^ I may have told you that I went in the week before with a long fulsome list of totally adequate excuses why I hadn’t brought anything to sing.  He looked at me a minute and then said, You mean you bottled out.

            Um. . . . 

*** It’s his job in this household to maintain sanity under stress. 

† Supposing you can get Cool Whip in the UK, about which there seems to be some doubt.  Personally I think Cool Whip would reach its product zenith as a nonviolent protest device, but then I am a crunchygranolahead who only eats organic chocolate.

†† I should be taking heart from the fact that it’s usually sung by countertenors who are (usually) not very loud.

^ Yes I know there are qualities other than loudness.  But on pitch and loud is all that is really necessary in a choir singer.  

††† Someone needs to blow a horn and make that duke kill himself.    

‡ I hope I’m joking.

‡‡ Yes I know Hugo didn’t write the librettos.  But I’m not in a charitable mood.  And it was his frelling translation of frelling Shakespeare that led to the libretto of Verdi’s FALSTAFF which I hate so much I’m glad I don’t understand Italian so I can listen to the music and not have a clue what’s going on. 

‡‡‡ I have this reaction to a lot of movies. 

§ Unless she gets a contract out of the king detailing the terms he’s going to set her up for life in after he gets bored with her.  This is still the choice I’m backing.


Sublime and Ridiculous


ERNANI may be the dumbest opera ever to approach becoming standard repertoire.  The fact that it doesn’t approach it any closer, despite a good deal of ravishing Verdi music, is probably because it is so dumb.  Gods, heavens, demons, miscellaneous spirits, and anything else floating around—IT IS SO DUMB.  I have it on CD, of course, I have pretty much everything Verdi ever wrote on CD, but I’ve never seen this one staged before.*  I’m not sure this was a virginity worth losing.  I am not the first person to point this out, but possibly its chief purpose in the Verdi compendium is to make the insane plot of IL TROVATORE look sensible and well put together.

            Also, the tenor/hero in TROVATORE is a twit, but he’s not such a whinerpants.  Ernani spends the entire opera moaning about what a hard life he’s had and begging people to kill him.  Come on, de Silva, you old brute, do it now at the end of act one and get it over with.  How did the wet, whinging Ernani, supposedly the brave daring leader of a brave daring band of bandits, meet the globally irresistible Elvira in the first place, let alone long enough for them to fall in love with each other (not that this usually takes more than an aria to accomplish in any opera)?

            Anyway.  Elvira is, for reasons unspecified, mewed up in de Silva’s castle, where he’s going to marry her by force.  De Silva is old and he comes on and sings this self-pitying aria about how he wishes that the ardour of youth did not beat in his aged breast . . . but it does, so he’s going to marry this girl even though she wants no part of him.  If this is the choice maybe I’ll take the whinerpants after all.

            But there’s a third entrant to the Elvira stakes:  Don Carlo, the frelling king of frelling Spain. Played by Dmitri Hvorostovksy mmmmmmmmm okay, did you say there are two other male principals?  I seem to forget.  But the king sneaks into de Silva’s castle—he what?  The king what?—to try to persuade Elvira to run away with him** and at the point where things may be about to go badly wrong for Elvira because the king is not a graceful taker of the answer ‘no’ both the other blokes show up and start shouting at one another.  Because this is all so plausible and well thought out.

            But the really cute bit is the deal with the horn.  In Act Two Elvira has decided, for more unspecified reasons, that Ernani is dead and has agreed to marry de Silva after all.***  Ernani then randomly shows up dressed as a pilgrim and asks for shelter.  Guests are sacred to the de Silvas! says de Silva, and then finds out who it is.  Cue gnashing of teeth.  Then the frelling king shows up, demanding that brave daring bandit Ernani.  Nothing to do with me, says de Silva.  I shall search your castle, because I know he is here! says the king.  A de Silva’s word, once given, even to a lying sneak of a fraudulent pilgrim, must be kept, says de Silva.  Then I will TORTURE EVERYBODY, because I am the king, and a really bad loser! says the king.  Go for it, says de Silva.

            At this point Elvira rushes in and says no, no, no, Mr King, please don’t do that, all this testosterone is giving me a headache!

            For you, anything, says the king.  Come away, come away, you pretty thing, I am going to wrap you up in flowers and ::drools::  I am taking your fiancée hostage, okay? he says to de Silva.  Whatever, says de Silva.  Exeunt everyone but de Silva, who is standing around looking oppressed, and then Ernani bursts out from the hidden priest-hole equivalent and says, you mean you let the king take her AWAY?  Don’t you know he is our RIVAL?

            WHAT? says de Silva.  —Yo, elderly moron guy, that would be why he was going on about how he was going to make her happy, you know?  And all the pleasure that awaits her at his . . . ahem . . . court.  Yes, that would be it:  his court.  Jeez.  Maybe you’re a little hard of hearing?  And a little forgetful?  You were cross when you caught him in her bedroom in act one . . .

            So now we have to form a brotherhood to kill the evil female-plot-device-stealing king! says Ernani.  How do I know I can trust you? says de Silva.  A little late to be thinking about that now, isn’t it?  When you’ve just made the violent and unstable king really mad at you by defending me?†  But listen, goes on Ernani, I’ll tell you what.    You can trust me because I’m giving you my hunting horn.  The moment I hear you blow it I will KILL MYSELF.††

            We will pause here for you operatically inexperienced blog readers to absorb this concept.

            You know how it ends.  But it still takes a few avalanches of credibility to get there.  Carlo—this is Charles V in the history books:  it’s not a nice likeness—is hoping to get elected Holy Roman Emperor.  He may or may not have been a very good king, but the startlingly large band of assassins de Silva and Ernani have brought together still seem to be founded on the idea that he stole someone’s girlfriend.  It’s not any more doolally than the hunting horn business in the previous act.  And then Carlo is elected emperor, by a council of evidently seriously underinformed Electors, and promptly does the miser-leans-against-wall-and-becomes-generous thing, pardons the entire band of assassins, and as they’re standing around gaping at one another, he pulls Elvira out of the scenery somewhere and hands her over to Ernani.

            Um.  I realise that in the context of what’s about to happen in the next scene, where Ernani is, of course, going to hear the damn horn, Carlo is supposedly giving Ernani and Elvira their happy ending and until de Silva does his Al Hirt thing it’s chirping birds and rose petals all the way.  But we all saw the king in the first act.  Is this a man who is going to have been coming round for a cup of tea in the afternoons and meekly continuing to put his suit forward?  I don’t think so.  I think he’s just got tired of Elvira a little sooner than anticipated. . . .

            Anyway.  It’s Ernani and Elvira’s wedding day.   Chirping birds.  Rose petals.  And the distant sound of a hunting horn.  And then de Silva comes around and gloats.  And . . .  after some final moaning about what a hard life he’s had (although in the circumstances I suppose you finally can’t blame him) Ernani kills himself.†††  Usually Elvira merely faints.  In this staging she snatches the knife away from her brand-new (dead) husband and offs herself as well.  And in what I can’t help but think is an acknowledgement of the outstanding gobsmackingness of the whole shebang . . . there’s no blood.  They die (singing) utterly unbesmirched by stage blood or believability.

            PS:  It is fabulously sung.  And a lot of the music is finest kind.  Ignore what the hell is going on and just suck it in.  Anyone who had the sense to stay home and listen on the radio will have had a terrific time with it.  Angela Meade.  My new heroine.  My golly can that woman sing.  Big Verdi soprano voice:  wow.  And she’s got those soft floating high notes too, as well as all the power to knock you over.  Dmitri, well, we know about me and Dmitri.  The square-mouthed Marcello Giordani has the classic Verdi dramatic tenor voice—but he’s not enough of an actor to bring off the flaying absurdity that goes with all the gorgeous notes.  Ferruccio Furlanetto as de Silva has an easier time:  he’s got the voice, and his character is a total creepfest:  all he has to do is slouch around looking grumpy, vain and evil, and sing.  And the staging is fine:  nothing too meretriciously in your face in the name of art and excitement.  But oh, the plot. . . . 

* * *

*First breathtakingly anti-relevant footnote:  I’ve told you I’ve been prodding a couple of beginner books of Japanese kanji in a dubious and lightly hysterical manner.  One of the first characters they all seem to give you is a blank square, which is the kanji for ‘mouth’.  I think of mouths—I assume we’re talking about human mouths—as being more oval.  This is known as falling at the first fence.^    

             ERNANI begins with a rousing chorus, while our hero, the tenor^^, broods backstage on an artfully ruined bit of masonry.  At the end of the chorus he turns towards the audience and opens his mouth to sing . . . and his mouth is perfectly square.  It’s about the squarest thing I’ve ever seen. 

^ Although ‘sun’ is worse.  It’s a rectangle with a line through it.  Yes.  That so looks like the sun to me.  Not.   And kanji started as pictographs?  Sure they did.  Drawn by aliens from another universe.  Where the sun is rectangular and has a line through it and the females of the pictograph-writing species look like folding TV tray tables.  

^^ The hero is always a tenor.  Or anyway if there’s a tenor he’s the hero.  And if several blokes all rush onstage and down to the front together then the short one is the tenor hero.  

** I want to believe that the translation leaves something to be desired but I’m afraid it’s probably pitiably excellent.  So Don Carlo is apparently offering Elvira either to marry her or to install her as his ‘favourite’ and I’m (again) thinking, what?  Not that he doesn’t look like the worst husband material ever, but like yeah get set up as his mistress so he can throw you over after he gets bored with you six months from now.  What a good idea.

            Although six months of Dmitri . . . hmmm . . . But then I’m self-supporting.  And I’m sure I could get a story out of it.  But Hvorostovsky is alarmingly good at playing horny villains.  He was the Count in TROVATORE. 

*** Take the king.  

† Boy ideas of honour.  Spare me. 

†† Boy ideas of honour.  SPARE ME.   


« Previous PageNext Page »