Sunday, April 26, 2015

Death-Free Drama

So, nobody dies in Aida.

How's that for a hook? Definitely a good tagline for an opera, "Nobody dies!" isn't it? I'd go see that opera.

But really, think about the plot of Aida for a moment. Set in ancient times, there's a king of a country near northern Africa, and he's fighting against a certain people to whom go our sympathies. This king's daughter is involved in a love triangle with a member of said people and a conflicted third party with interests in both factions. The members of the love triangle are a soprano, a mezzo, and a tenor, but not necessarily in that order. Anyway, through some shenanigans, the conflicted third party is sentenced to death, but don't worry, because member of fought-against-people-to-whom-go-our-sympathies and conflicted third party both survive the Act IV curtain, and presumably live happily ever after. Oh, also, there's a famous chorus in the second scene of some act or another that has people singing about their homeland.

Why yes, I am using these incredibly vague descriptors to talk about about Nabucco!

I'm not going to pretend that Aida and Nabucco share a synopsis, because they don't, but there is at least similarity enough, even in the setting, that it makes sense to analyze these two operas together, particularly as an observation of Verdi throughout his career, Nabucco being his third opera, and the one that made him a real hit, and Aida being his third-to-last, as if that were an important number.

Verdi, aside from being the most popular Italian opera composer ever, with La Traviata being the number one opera worldwide according to Operabase, is arguably the most important Italian opera composer ever. True, Rossini was king in his day, but his operas were written to be disposable. Of his thirty-nine, only Il Barbriere Di Siviglia and La Cenerentola really stuck, though some of his grander operas like Semiramide and La Donna Del Lago make their rounds once in a while. Verdi made opera stick, and was the primary transitional composer of his time, coming in on the heels of the bel canto era, and paving the way for Puccini. Puccini never did anything quite so grand, but I could see him having written, say, Falstaff. And at the same time, it isn't hard to imagine that Rossini or Donizetti might have written Ernani. Verdi crossed an incredible range in his career, and of his thirty or so operas (depending on how you count revisions), ten of them make Operabase's top fifty. (For comparison, the next two leaders, Mozart and Puccini, each have five.)

Nabucco comes across about as you might expect an opera seria in the bel canto era. The dialogue is conveyed in recitativo accompagnato, often followed by a cavatina to which a cabaletta is attached. Regular bel canto fare, and for Nabucco, it fares very well. Some of the arias, particularly Zaccaria's, might run a little long, but Nabucco is an opera that runs on high strung emotional characters, shocking revelations, and epiphanies. Excellent subject matter for all sorts of exciting cabalettas. Meanwhile, Aida is an opera that runs on high strung emotional characters, shocking revelations, and epiphanies. Not good subject matter for wasting time of cabalettas.

Actually, Aida doesn't run on its characters, or even the plot, even though it's a pretty good one. Aida runs on the setting. It's the big opera everyone knows that takes place in ancient Egypt and might have an elephant. It's the archetypal grand opera. People go and see Nabucco for the script and the music, but people flock to see Aida for the spectacle.

Truth be told, I'm not exactly sure how to reconcile this with the different musical treatments Verdi gives them. In all honesty, it probably doesn't matter. They could have been written in the reverse order, and then I'd be talking about Nabucco as the spectacle and Aida as the bel canto follow-up. But grand opera was a thing in the bel canto era, and Rossini's Guillaume Tell runs just fine on recitativo accompagnato and his usual cavatina/cabaletta aria format, and Ponchielli's La Gioconda on its more through-composed verismo style. I would say Nabucco benefits from its late-bel-canto-ness, but that's because it has. Similarly how Aida has benefited from its early-verismo-ness. I'd be better off comparing the dozen different operatic adaptations of Jerusalem Delivered, but Verdi didn't write any of those.

Something curious in the development from recitative to through-composedness is how Verdi handles it toward the middle of his career. All over Rigoletto and Il Trovatore and, my favorite of his, La Traviata, is something that's not quite accompanied recitative, but still not what you might call a song. See the famous duet between Rigoletto and Sparafucile for a prime example. The orchestra is playing a rather hummable tune. Catchy, even. It moves along nicely. Meanwhile, our baritone and bass are singing over it in what feels like the regular pace of dialogue and normal recitative, occasionally slipping into the tune. This is not Verdi's invention. Mozart uses the in Le Nozze Di Figaro in the Act III finale. During the dance scene (or starting at Ecco La Marcia), the orchestra is playing a dance tune, but the characters are still singing what feels like recitative. La Traviata uses it an awful lot, which makes sense considering about half of that opera takes place at assorted parties. It's a curious thing, and an interesting step in the development of recitative -- or away from recitative, if you prefer. Aida seems to do away with the recitative altogether. By the time we get to Puccini, yes there are some clear individual arias, but it's not so clear what comes in between them.

Aida also notably does something interesting with the overture. Originally, Verdi had planned on writing a potpourri-style overture, like he did with Nabucco. But this was scrapped for something else. A prelude, very serene to start, but which picks up and then draws back again. That doesn't really matter. What does matter is that there does not feel to be a break between where the prelude ends and the opera begins. Yes, there is a distinct line that you can cut off at for the track listing, but the opera begins with what feels like an extension of the overture. Not like Rigoletto or La Traviata, which open with dark or grim themes, setting up the opera as a whole, while opening the first act itself with a wild party. That contrast is, I think, what makes those preludes so fantastic, because it is a contrast that pervades those entire operas, and the opening scene of any stage performance is an establishing moment that must be perfect. Nabucco's establishing moment, its overture of the potpourri style, tells the audience that this is a showpiece. A dramatic one, but a showpiece. It sets up the bel canto feel. The feel we might expect from a Broadway show before West Side Story came along with its ballet-prologue rather than an overture. Aida sets up something different. Something more serious. The audience is paying attention to the prelude, but at some point the prelude becomes the opera, and before you know it, you're halfway through the exposition. It sets up the opera to be immersive. And indeed, while in Nabucco the audience is thrilled by the vocal acrobatics and the wonderful melodies, in Aida, the audience is totally encapsulated all the way through to the happy ending.

Yes, it took me this long to come to the point where nobody dies in Aida. Well, now that you've slogged through all that, I'll come to it now. See, the curtain falls on Aida before she and Radames actually die. It falls as they're being sealed inside the tomb, but for all we know, Amneris secretly had an escape passage built in. Or the tomb isn't airtight and Aida smuggled in enough supplies to keep them going for a while while they dig themselves out. Or Godzilla smashes in and rescues them. Yes, it's cheap (though there have been other resolutions in operas just about as cheap), but it got you reading, didn't it?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Cloncludo, Concludere

The Bridges Of Madison County: "But what is true is that we loved, and that I loved, and that I love, and I will always love."
Closed in three months after 137 performances.

Candide: "Amo, amas, amat, amamus."
Closed in two months after 73 performances.

Merrily We Roll Along: "That's what everyone does: Blames the way it is on the way it was; on the way it never ever was."
Closed in two weeks after thirteen performances.

Conclusion: Don't even try to conjugate verbs on a Broadway stage.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Is Opera Leavened?

There's a surprising amount of classical musical material for Jewish holidays. Handel has Chanukkah covered with Judas Maccabeus, and Purim with Esther. For Pesach, he gives us Israel In Egypt, and then later on we got La Juive from Halevy, and Mose In Egitto from Rossini. There is also Verdi's Nabucco, which, though not directly associated with any Jewish holiday, has themes applicable to Chanukkah, Mendelssohn's Elijah, the title character of which is invoked in the Passover seder, and Bock and Harnick's Fiddler On The Roof, in which Bryn Terfel will be appearing this summer, so it counts.

Now, Passover starts tonight, so wouldn't today be a good day to rant about one of these? I decided to do Mose In Egitto for two reasons. One, it's the one from this list with which I'm most familiar, and, two, I like bel canto.

Bel canto worked on a lot of Baroque traditions. Vocal frills the most obvious. Also the popular cavatina-cabaletta format, which is something like both an extension and reduction of the da capo aria. Less obvious is the return to high mythological or fantastical stories. Baroque operas tended to deal with gods and heroes and highly romanticized foreign locations. This tends not to be dealt with again until Wagner, but it is extremely prevalent in the bel canto era. This tends to be forgotten, as the most popular operas from this period, Il Barbriere Di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, L'Elisir D'Amore, Don Pasquale, and so on, tend to be light fluffy comedies for which the light fluffy music associated with Rossini and Donizetti seems ideal. Lucia Di Lammermoor is the only dramatic bel canto opera really in the standard rep. Dramatic bel canto is making a comeback, though, thanks in large part to Joyce DiDonato, who champions it. La Donna Del Lago took the Met stage for the first time last month, and next season it will see all three Donizetti queens. The oft-forgotten Bellini is also gaining in popularity, and thanks to Joyce DiDonato's recent Stella Di Napoli album, I won't be surprised if we see some of those operas take the stage in the near future.

Mose In Egitto comes from the middle of Rossini's career, one of his Neapolitan operas, written to feature Isabella Colbran. It falls in the same general set as Armida and Ermione, but perhaps is better compared to Rossini's last opera, Guillaume Tell. Rossini did revise Mose In Egitto later in his career, and it became a French grand opera, Moise Et Pharaon. Following it was Le Comte Ory (his last comedy), and then Guillaume Tell, so from that perspective, the two operas are not so far removed in his career. And Guillaume Tell got an Italian version later, so they're sort of on the same page.

The title characters of both are neither tenors nor sopranos, which seems to be the norm. William Tell is a baritone, and Moses is a bass. Speaking as a bass myself, I appreciate this. What I don't appreciate is that in both operas, that low-voiced titular character still isn't the protagonist. The main characters of these operas are, of course, tenors. Arnold Melchtal and Osiride. Arnold at least is a likable character, but I'll admit to not really being sure if Osiride is supposed to be a villain or not, and, to be honest, he kind of ruins the opera for me. Instead I might have focused more on Pharaoh (the French version of the opera is half named after him, after all), and make him a more nuanced character and foil to Moses than a bland villain who changes his mind a lot. Pharaoh is a character already in the story, and one that perhaps could use a bit more characterization. A lot of people complained about how the new Hobbit movies introduced an unnecessary romantic subplot that wasn't present in the book. That's basically how I feel about this opera. The romantic elements are either uninteresting or unremarkable, and it detracts from what I feel does make the opera interesting and remarkable.

Right from the beginning, it's clear that Mose In Egitto is not your normal Rossini opera. Mostly due to the lack of overture. The opera opens more theatrically than you would expect from Rossini, with the plague of darkness. It's kind of meta, if you think about it. When the lights go dark in the theater and the opera begins. There's a short orchestral prelude, and as the curtain rises and the stage lights come up, the plague lifts. And then there is a scena unlike anything else Rossini ever wrote. I would never have believed Rossini could have written it. I would have guessed Verdi. And not early Verdi either. This continuous throughout the opera, the brilliant un-Rossini-like music to the grand miracles. The storm of fire Moses calls for, and the whole final scene with the parting of the red sea, and the absolutely stunning trio-with-chorus, Dal Tuo Stellato Soglio, which precedes it. If not for the love story with Osiride and Elcia, or perhaps even despite it, I would say Mose In Egitto to be a real gem of Rossini's career, and the bel canto era as a whole. Perhaps we can have a reduced version for use at Passover seders? I wouldn't mind Miriam's role being a little expanded, though. Contrary to popular belief, Rossini could write grand opera. It's a shame he didn't write a few more of them.