Monday, February 20, 2017

A Few Notes on "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix"

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Samson and Delilah

The other week, I ran across an article on Corymbus, via a tweet from the author, Emma Kavanaugh. It's called "Rethinking Sexual Agency in 'Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix'" and it's an analysis of Dalila's power and sexuality in the context of 19th century opera and signifiers of exoticism. This is, of course, one of the showstopper arias from Samson et Dalila, the only one of Camille Saint-Saens's dozen operas that is still performed in the US.

The article is largely on target, but I also think that Kavanaugh misses one or two significant points and that one point she's trying to make is simply not supported by the musical evidence.

Here are some useful links, if you'd like to follow along:
  • Text of the aria, Wikipedia, with translations
  • Full score of the opera, IMSLP
  • Lots of mezzos and a few sopranos taking a shot at the aria. I listened to Horne in 1983, at the Met Gala, because that rich, chocolaty tone of hers works very well in this one. I tried to find a recording by a late 19th/early 20th c. French contralto with no success. I'll note that it's interesting to listen to the Italian Ebe Stignani right after Horne. She's singing in Italian, and her timbre is so bright (and admittedly it is a gorgeous sound) that she doesn't sound quite right to me.
In fact, here she is:

First off, we are going to take a step or two back and note that Dalila is a mezzo-soprano. This is significant, perhaps twice over. Nineteenth century French opera has some notable mezzo prima donnas, whereas in Italian opera, mezzos are usually the other woman, the witch, the mother. French opera gives us Cassandre, Didon, Dalila, Charlotte, and others. Take a minute to think of Wagner's mezzos, and, well, they're a rather mixed lot.

There's enough association between sex and mezzos, and between the exotic and mezzos, that I think somebody must have written a dissertation about this. Consider Azucena and Ulrica, Verdi's mezzo witches. They are exotic: a gypsy, to use the older term, and a black woman. Consider Princess Eboli, who is in love with Carlo while carrying on with his father, and who gets the most exotic, most Spanish, aria in the opera.( Keep the Veil Song in mind, because I'll be getting back to it later.) Berlioz being Berlioz, Didon doesn't have the earthiness of Verdi's mezzos, or of Dalila, but gosh, she is rather obviously having sex with Enée in the Royal Hunt & Storm and again in "Nuit d'ivresse." (There's some exoticism in Troyens but it comes in the Act IV ballet music rather than in the vocal parts.)

And (ahem) how could I forget Carmen, historically sung by both mezzos and sopranos, but sporting gypsy exoticism, the use of Spanish musical styles, and a very free sexuality?

Continuing on the theme of exoticism, if you've listened to the aria, does the opening sound familiar? That's right: it's awfully similar to what the high strings are doing at the opening of Act 3 of Verdi's Aida, another opera steeped in exoticism. I see that the French premiere of the opera didn't take place until 1876, five years after its world premiere, and Samson's premiere was in 1877. Well, hmm, there are such things in scores, and it seems possible that S-S could have seen the score of Aida. In any event, I do not think this is an accident.

Now, about Dalila's sexuality and how she uses it. Maybe she's just trying to seduce Samson in order to symbolically castrate him....but if you listen to this aria and read the text of it, well, I'd say that she might just have the hots for him. Look at that text: yeah, it might be her heart opening to him, but consider how he might "fill her with ecstasy." That...is all pretty blatant, in my reading.

Kavanaugh discusses the chromaticism and increasing complexity of the orchestral accompaniment as signifiers of exoticism, which is in itself something of a stand-in for sexuality. But I think she goes too far is her discussion of "wordless vocalise." She offers as evidence the following phrase, which I've copied directly from her article:

I confirmed on Twitter that yes, she's talking about the "Ah!" in the above example.

I do not buy this as "a wordless vocalisation" (or vocalise, the word she uses earlier). To start with, we're talking about three beats, three-quarters of a four-beat measure in an aria that's about 75 bars long and has lots of words. As a wordless vocalization, it's not much.

The "Ah!" has a couple of functions. It's an intensifier, a sort of a sigh, which is not surprising when she's singing about being filled up with ecstasy. Practically speaking, it is possible the librettist put it in to make the French phrase more singable. Try to fit the words to the phrasing without the "Ah!" and you'll see what I mean.

Lastly, it's the first bar of a two-bar melodic sequence...and it's a sequence that occurs in a number of places in the aria proper and in the duet that follows. Here's another musical example, from the full score:

Note Dalila in the third through sixth measures, where she's singing an elongated version of what's in her aria (unless tempo changes have made the measures sound at the same apparent speed as in the first example), complete with the leap of a 7th, etc. This is now in duet with Samson, who has a sort of inversion of some of what she's singing.

You want an exotic vocalization, I've got one for you, and here we bring in "Nell giardin del bello," the Veil Song, which I suggested you keep in mind a few paragraphs back. Here's the great Fiorenza Cossotto - it's just the first verse, but that should be enough to make my point.

Listen to what she is doing starting around 1:50 or 1:55. Now there is a wordless vocalise, indicating exoticism: in this case, it's fake-Moorish style, entirely appropriate for an opera set in renaissance Spain not all that long after the Jews and Muslims were thrown out of the country. Compare with Dalila's three beats above, and that's why I'm a skeptic.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pay Attention.

A few weeks ago, Steve Smith sent a link out into the world on Twitter, and included his opinion that it showed some strong arts reporting from the Village Voice, after a period of, well, neglecting arts coverage by laying off most or all of their arts staff. Steve is a great writer and a smart guy, so I clicked the link and read the article.

Just this once, I gotta say: Steve was wrong.

Tara Isabella Burton wrote the article in question, and if you haven't seen her name in the NY classical press much, it might be because she is currently a graduate student at Oxford, working on a doctorate in theology and fin de siècle French literature. She has published a number of articles on religion, culture, and place, according to her web site. Her portfolio has no music reviews listed except for the one Steve touted....and maybe it should stay that way.

Her article has the title "Strong Heroines Dominate the Met Opera This Season." Now, probably she didn't write the title, but maybe she should have objected to it. For one thing, her article concerns three operas, Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin, Leos Janacek's Jenufa, and Richard Strauss's Salome.

Those three represent about one quarter of the Met's fall season, which also included Tristan und IsoldeDon GiovanniL'Italiana in AlgeriLa BohemeGuillaume TellAidaNabucco, and The Magic Flute. Burton doesn't make much of a case for the "strong heroines," and I'd certainly like to see her explain why she picked out those three operas as particularly representing strong women. Isolde is no weakling, and neither is Donna Anna, for example. My guess is that Jenufa, L'Amour de Loin, and Salome are the three operas she was able to see on a trip to NYC. Or maybe they had a special significance to her theological interests; Salome is, more or less, based on a Biblical story; the Saariaho addresses the relationship of Clémence, Countess of Tripoli, with God; Janacek's Kostelnicka is the widow of a deacon.

But there's a much, much more serious issue in the article than my quibbling above: one can reasonably ask where she was and what she was paying attention to during Act 2 of Jenufa, because she gets two major plot points completely wrong.

If you haven't seen the opera and you're not familiar with the plot, here's a nice big SPOILER WARNING for the rest of this blog post.

First, there's this rookie mistake:
... October and November saw the quiet, dark, and hauntingly realistic Jenufa, Czech composer Leoš Janá?ek's's 1904 portrait of the relationship between a young woman (Oksana Dyka), her mother-in-law (Karita Mattila), and their shared act of well-meaning infanticide. A verismo opera, it turns its focus away from mythic figures and toward the lives of average people.
No, actually, the Kostelnicka is not Jenufa's mother-in-law. Jenufa is unmarried at the beginning of the opera, and the Kostelnicka is her stepmother, Jenufa's father's second wife. Now, I haven't seen the Met's program, and maybe there's no family tree, which I consider to be absolutely essential for understanding who is who, how they are related, and why they are in the particular positions they're in at the start of the opera. But here's the Met's synopsis for the fall production, which makes the relationships perfectly clear.

Here's the even more serious howler; note that the Kostelnicka is now correctly identified as Jenufa's stepmother:*
Although Jenufa's circumstances are, in part, dictated by the men around her (after all, her accidental pregnancy serves as the driver for the plot), the crux of the opera lies in Jenufa's and her stepmother's choices and desires — for a fresh start, for a new life, for freedom. They kill Jenufa's unwanted bastard child because they seek to determine their own lives. Both survive to see the curtain fall, a feat for any female opera protagonist, gaining the possibility of at least bittersweet endings.
Well, no. That's not what happens at all. The Kostelnicka drugs Jenufa, then later picks up the baby, scurries into the night, and throws the child into a stream.

It's possible to miss the line or two where the drugging takes place, but if you are watching the stage, it is not possible to miss the fact that Jenufa is sound asleep when the baby is taken. And I'm confident that the production is clear on this point, because I have seen it in both LA and SF. I have some beefs with it, but lack of clarity isn't one of them.

So the question arises: was Tara Isabella Burton asleep or in the bar for Act 2? And why did she not bother to read the synopsis of an opera that she was going to write about but evidently had not seen before? **

* Bad copy-editing here, that this inconsistency slipped by.

** Look, you don't forget the plot of this one after the first time you see it.  You just don't.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Metropolitan Opera 2017-18

Once again, shamelessly stealing from Opera Tattler:

September 25- December 16 2017: Norma
September 26- October 28 2017: Les Contes d’Hoffmann
September 27- October 14 2017: Die Zauberflöte
October 2 2017- March 10 2018: La Bohème
October 12 2017- April 5 2018: Turandot
October 26- November 21 2017: The Exterminating Angel
November 2 2017- March 16 2018: Madama Butterfly
November 11- December 2 2017: Thaïs 
November 24- December 2 2017: Verdi's Requiem
November 25- December 9 2017 The Magic Flute 
December 6 2017- January 19 2018: Le Nozze di Figaro 
December 14 2017- January 11 2018: The Merry Widow
December 18 2017- January 6 2018: Hansel and Gretel 
December 31 2017- May 12 2018: Tosca
January 8- February 1 2018: Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci
January 16- February 17 2018: L'Elisir d'Amore
January 22- February 15 2018: Il Trovatore
February 5-27 2018: Parsifal 
February 19- March 17 2018 Semiramide
March 1-23 2018: Elektra 
March 15- April 19 2018: Così fan tutte
March 22- May 10 2018: Lucia di Lammermoor
March 29- April 21 2018: Luisa Miller 
April 12- May 11 2018: Cendrillon
April 23- May 12 2018: Roméo et Juliette

Um....wow. There are 26 operas. With the exception of Thomas Adès's latest, The Exterminating Angel, which has its Met and US premiere, they are all by dead white men. Adès's, of course, is by  a living white man.

His opera is also the only opera written after 1925. Way to go, Met! That's about as safe and dull a season as is possible. If I had 26 operas to schedule, I would take more chances. Yes, there is some excellent casting and there are some great singers (Mattei, Goerke, Vogt, etc.). The Met Orchestra concerts aren't listed above, but MGT will conduct one of them. (That is a surprise; I would expect them all to go to Levine.)

If I lived in NY, I would see Exterminating Angel, Elektra, Parsifal, Semiramide, Cendrillon, and Romeo, largely because I've never seen the last three. Oh, and maybe Thais, ditto.

Oakland Friday Photo

Persimmon Tree
November, 2017

Thursday, February 16, 2017

45 Thinks He is Barack Obama

The 45th president's press conference today was an embarrassment, a horrifying blend of ignorance and incoherence marking him as unqualified for most jobs, let alone one of the most complex and subtle in the world today.

One claim: that he inherited "a mess." No, he didn't. Here's a several-months-old graphic about the mess that President Obama inherited from GWB:

In January, 2017, the unemployment rate was actually 4.8% and the DJIA was around 19,800. (No, I can't tell you why the DJIA went up after the election.)

You've Heard this Song Before

Metropolitan Opera -> Carmen -> Marcelo Alvarez (Don José) -> Roberto Aronica, February 18, 2017

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence"

That's a breaking news headline that went up at the Times a few minutes ago. I know it was recent, because I tweeted it before I saw tweets from the politics & policy journalists I read.

Seriously, despite the fact that there many deaths at US embassies during the GWB administration, the GOP chased Hillary Clinton for years about Benghazi. Then they hounded her about her private email server.

Here we've got a President whose aides may have been colluding with the Russian intelligence agencies to get him elected or to make pre-election promises, and I'm just waiting for the calls for impeachment.

Monday, February 13, 2017

More on that Met Carmen

From the Met's press office:
Roberto Aronica will sing the role of Don José in the February 15 performance of Bizet’s Carmen, replacing the originally scheduled Marcelo Álvarez, who is ill.
Italian tenor Aronica sang Don José at the Met on February 7 and 11, and has previously sung the role at the Teatro Regio di Torino and Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Following his Met debut in 1998 as Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata, he starred as the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto and in three Puccini roles: Rodolfo in La Bohème, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, and Cavaradossi in Tosca. Later this season, he will reprise the role of Don José at La Fenice and sing des Grieux in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at Naples’s Teatro di San Carlo.
The February 15 performance of Carmen will be conducted by Louis Langrée and will star Cleméntine Margaine in the title role with Maria Agresta as Micaëla and Michael Todd Simpson as Escamillo.
Okay. It is apparent that Álvarez is very unlikely to sing any of his scheduled run of performances. We're getting a stream of cast changes as the Met works out who will substitute for him as Don José

Pretty Yende Steps in for Damrau

From the Met:
Pretty Yende will sing the role of Elvira in tomorrow evening’s performance of Bellini’s I Puritani, replacing Diana Damrau, who is ill.
Ms. Yende, who has sung Elvira with Zurich Opera, recently starred as Rosina in a Met revival of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. She made an unexpected Met debut in 2013 as Countess Adèle in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory and returned in 2014 to sing Pamina in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Next month, she will make her Met role debut as Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Her other recent performances have included the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Paris Opera and Deutsche Oper Berlin; Adina in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore at the Bavarian State Opera; and Amira in Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia at the Rossini Opera Festival.
Tomorrow evening’s performance of I Puritani is conducted by Maurizio Benini and also stars Javier Camarena as Arturo, Alexey Markov as Riccardo, and Luca Pisaroni as Giorgio.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Dallas Opera, 2017-18

Well, well, one of the more unusual operatic seasons in the US, and it's in Dallas. Good for you - I will finally make my first visit, maybe two, to Texas. Once again, I steal liberally from OT. The Dallas Opera web page about the season is here.

October 20- November 5 2017: Samson and Dalila
October 27-November 12 2017: La traviata
February 9-17 2018: Erich Wolfgang Korngold's The Ring of Polykrates
March 9-17 2018: Michel van der Aa's Sunken Garden
April 13-29 2018: Don Giovanni

The items of interest are obvious: the American premieres of both Korngold's The Ring of Polykrates and Michel van der Aa's Sunken Garden. I don't know van der Aa's music, and I admit that I poked this opera and The Secret Garden for the similarity of their sets. But, yeah, I'd really like to see it! And that's partly because I don't know his music at all.

I need to mention that the great British baritone Roderick Williams is in Sunken Garden. I've seen him twice, once in the Britten War Requiem at SFS and once in Harrison Birtwistle's Yan Tan Tethera, and he is one of the best you will ever hear.

There's some attractive casting elsewhere, too, most notably Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni.

LA Opera 2017-18

Ooof. LA Opera relapses, has a season with nothing on the main stage that I would attend if I lived down there. List stolen, with thanks, from Opera Tattler. I have added (ms) to indicate the productions staged at the Dorothy Chandler.

September 9-23 2017: Carmen (ms)
October 7-28 2017: The Pearl Fishers (ms)
October 14-November 19 2017: Nabucco (ms)
October 28-31 2017: La Belle et la Bete
November 9-12 2017: Keeril Makan's Persona
January 27- February 18 2018 Bernstein's Candide (ms)
March 10-25 2018: Orpheus and Eurydice (ms)
May 12- 31 2018: Rigoletto (ms)
May 26 2018: Matthew Aucoin's Crossing
June 22-24 2018: Gordon Getty's Usher House and Canterville Ghost

Wow. I mean, what? Two by Bizet, including his greatest hit and a real stinker. I do not get why Pearl Fishers is suddenly popping up at all the majors, and I really hope SF doesn't stage it again. (Give us some Saint-Saens or Massenet or even Gounod's Romeo rather than this turkey.) Carmen has the novelty of a soprano in the title role; these days, it's unusual, but the legendary Emma Calvé was a famous Carmen and so was Regine Crespin. I have no idea how Ana Maria Martinez will do with the part. Orepheus is choreographed as well as staged as an opera.

You should avoid the Getty double bill. Usher House is....not good.

For further horrified thoughts on this, see All is Yar, where Mr. CKDH is sputtering, but reports on an enlightening chat with James Conlon, whom I'd still like to steal.