The lattest upheavals in San Diego and New York have, as you might expect, stirred up another raft of “death of opera” articles in the press. Clichéd automatic reactions to what may be symptoms of something larger or may not were common enough before the digital age, but, since all it takes is to get a reader to click on a headline to accomplish something positive (as it seems) the constant repetition of dire news has become a reality of a decidedly Pavlovian sort, since the Net is interactive, is it not?
Nonetheless, there are signs that opera in the United States, which has flourished all over the country, as new regional companies have been founded and grown over the past thirty years, has reached a saturation point, partially due to economic limitations and partly to a decline in interest among the public. So far this has exerted more of a process of natural selection, with the wealthier, better run, and more dynamic opera houses surviving and even flourishing.
This is not the place to delve into this problem. Let it suffice to say that the Metropolitan Opera’s dilemma is by no means symptomatic of this general trend, as Peter Gelb claims, but the product of poor management. Still, even Seattle has had to cut back, cancelling a festive Meistersinger in honor Speight Jenkins’ retirement, and it looks as if the trend will be towards more economical productions. Lavish spectacle has been a part of opera since its early days in the sixteenth century, and that is unlikely to disappear entirely, but even less sophisticated opera-goers may not miss the excesses that have clogged the Met’s huge stage, with Las Vegas standing in for Mantua (which itself stood in for Paris/Fontainebleau), oversized, malfunctioning machines dominating Wagner’s Ring, and overpriced scenic details which contribute nothing of any real significance.
The music remains essential, and it is the singing that keeps people coming back. As the exhaustively hyped stars of the Met decline to the point that they can no longer please the people who actually pay attention to what they hear, the further question of just what kind of singing is expected of them arises. The traditional way of major opera houses is to ignore any consistent approach to a performance and to accept the styles and techniques the itinerant stars bring them. Some houses ask for more, and that usually obliges them to work with younger singers who are willing to comply and to work harder in the process. The Met is more casual than many in this respect, and this surfaced most embarrassingly, when they mounted Rossini’s Le Comte Ory using the traditional, notoriously corrupt score, partly because their lead tenor, Juan Diego Flóres, contractually refused to learn a new version. Ultimately, hearing fractured melodic lines which are belted at the top and swallowed on the bottom in operas from Mozart through Verdi at the Met (We’ll forget the rest for now.) can be a painful and depressing experience.
Will Crutchfield’s opera series at Caramoor, which has sold out or come close to it for some years, seems like a treasured oasis from all the vices of opera as usual. A scholar as well as a conductor, Crutchfield begins his preparations with thorough research, going back to the composers’ manuscripts, the premiering company’s production notes, and dispersed scores from later early productions. Often the original singers’ ornaments and phrasing have been recorded in these, and he has not only a source for usable material, but evidence he can use in understanding the expressive idiom intended by the composer. None of this means anything without being considered in the larger musical and dramatic context. Whatever you hear in Caramoor’s two summer opera productions has not only a reason, but an informed complex of reasoning and interpretation behind it.
In 2014, Crutchfield fulfilled an ambition he has cherished for many years—to present Verdi’s Rigoletto (premiered March 11, 1851 at La Fenice) together with Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia (premiered on December 26, 1833 at La Scala). Both are based on plays by Victor Hugo, Le roi s’amuse (premiered November 22, 1832 at the Comédie-Française) and Lucrèce Borgia (premiered at the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin on Feburary 2, 1833). These plays are closely associated in Hugo’s theatrical oeuvre, and he even referred to them as a “duology.” This was not lost on Giuseppe Verdi, who followed the model of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia closely in creating Rigoletto. Hugo created the two plays under the following circumstances. Le roi s’amuse, whose hero was Triboulet, the deformed jester at the courts of Louis XII and François I, was very poorly received at its premiere November 22, 1832, mostly because of his thinly veiled criticism of the monarchy and nobility, and the censors shut it down the following day. Hugo’s response to this disaster, following an indignant public letter, was to write a second play on similar themes, set in Italy during the same historical period. He wrote the play in a hurry, within a fortnight, and it proved a huge success in February, 1833. Donizetti, who composed rapidly in any case, and his librettist Felice Romani also worked fast in order to capitalize on the success of their model and were ready for a premiere on the day after Christmas of the same year.
Like Hugo’s play, the opera was a huge success. Le roi s’amuse languished unperformed for fifty years. When it was revived on November 22, 1882 at the Comédie Française, the playbill advertised it proudly as the second performance. The play was not without its admirers, however, when Verdi proposed the subject for La Fenice, he called it “one of the greatest creations of the modern theater.” Like the play, the opera ran afoul of the censors, and it was almost shelved. Finally, the librettist Piave arrived at a version that was acceptable both to the censors and to Verdi. The premiere was an enormous success, and it has remained so ever since, one of the most performed operas in the standard repertory. Rigoletto, which rapidly made the rounds of the major and minor opera houses of Europe, was not performed in Paris until January 19, 1857, even after it had appeared in places like Tiflis and Bombay. Victor Hugo considered it plagiarism, and managed to hold it up for six years through legal action, exercising his own form of censorship.
When Victor Hugo purposefully wrote a pair of socially critical plays, one involving paternal love in a physically deformed person and the other maternal love and incestuous passion in a morally deformed mother, both set in the Renaissance, a cultural period of particular significance to Hugo and his contemporaries, doesn’t it seem obstructive to set either the plays or the opera in a different period, rather than exploring the significance of what Hugo created and Romani, Donizetti, Piave, and Verdi followed, as far as the censors would permit? What can we possibly gain by seeing a Rat Pack Rigoletto, other than a passing frisson, lasting seconds, of contemporary recognition? In any case, Caramoor present concert performances in the Venetian Theater, or rather semi-staged performances, where there is enough action and dramatic grouping to give the soloists a feeling that they are actually performing opera, with some of the singers appearing in garb suggesting period and character. In any case it was entirely commendable of Caramoor to stress the close relationship of the operas with Hugo’s plays through readings of scenes from the plays and recitals of musical settings of Hugo’s texts. Of course one could explore this much further, and I did miss the learned presence of Philip Gossett, who seemed to be sitting this festival out, although he was mentioned in some of the advance announcements—which is not to say that Ken Benson’s lectures were not witty and well-informed.
Music by Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto by Felice Romani
Angela Meade, soprano – Lucrezia Borgia
Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano – Gennaro, her son
Michele Angelini, tenor
Christophoros Stamboglis, bass
Bel Canto Young Artists
Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Will Crutchfield, conductor and Director of Opera
Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia was immensely popular, while bel canto was still the main stream of opera, but it was sadly neglected later. For example, it received only one performance at the Met, in 1904, when an unsuccessful opera could simply be dropped from the schedule without further ado. Richard Aldrich’s review in the New York Times is exemplary of early twentieth century taste. Donizetti’s music was heard as pretty tunes to give the performers something appealing to sing, while a trivial, immoral, but tragic story was played on stage. Monserrat Caballé made a great impression in the role in a concert performance, her American debut, at Carnegie Hall in 1965. After that the role became a vehicle for Leyla Gencer, Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, Renée Fleming, and Edita Gruberová, and that has kept the opera alive in recent times.
In the Caramoor performances, Angela Meade, still early in her career, but something of a star already, gave a touch of this luster to the role of Lucrezia, but, in typical Caramoor form, she was surrounded by an equally strong cast. The movement and groupings on the stage of the Venetian Theater gave us a vivid sense of the story line and the dramatic situations, while we could—not bask in—but intelligently savor the superb singing and acting of the soloists and the fine Caramoor Young Artists. All the soloists sang with the vocal beauty we expect in bel canto, as well as the understanding of its dramatic function and psychological expression so richly cultivated by Will Crutchfield and his team. I was thrilled by the entire cast, perhaps above all by Tamara Mumford’s impeccably sung and brilliantly acted portrayal of Lucrezia’s son, Gennaro. I have not heard Angela Meade sing since her impressive Norma at Caramoor in 2010. I was delighted with the progress she has made. Her singing is less brilliant than is was—that is, flashy—and more musical. Her tone is richer and more integrated than before, and less inclined to blinding flashes at the top. Her performance as Lucrezia was less of a display piece and more of a full dramatic performance. If she were to return to Norma in a year or too, it would fulfill the promise of her Caramoor effort. My respect for Angela Meade has only grown by the direction in which she has chosen to develop her art, towards substance rather than empty virtuosity. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Crutchfield proved an eloquent narrator and lively accompanist throughout.
Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Georgia Jarman, soprano – Gilda
Nicole Piccolomini, mezzo-soprano – Giovanna
John Osborn, tenor – The Duke
Stephen Powell, baritone – Rigoletto
Jeffrey Beruan, bass – Sparafucile
Bel Canto Young Artists
Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Will Crutchfield, conductor and Director of Opera
So much of Caramoor revolves around hearing forgotten bel canto operas, that one might well forget that very famous operas—the mainstays of the Italian repertory in fact—are performed there as well. In fact I noticed a few more empty seats than usual at Rigoletto, and some of the regulars I’m accustomed to meeting were absent. (All the more unfortunate they, if they thought the standard Met Rigoletto was enough!) In fact Rigoletto is the final installment in Maestro Crutchfield’s traversal of Verdi’s “Romantic trilogy,” which includes La Traviata (2005) and Il Trovatore (2008). Verdi wrote the them in succession from 1850 through 1853. Rigoletto came first (premiered March 11, 1851), famously the first flowering of Verdi’s true maturity, followed by Il Trovatore (premiered January 19, 1853) and La Traviata (premiered March 6, 1853). Crutchfield important program note refers to these as “period-style restorations” or “Bel Canto reinterpretations,” of these familiar—really over-familiar—works. Crutchfield says, “In our Caramoor revivals of Verdi’s operas we seek to remind ourselves and the public how much Italy’s greatest composer belonged to the ‘bel canto’ era.” Verdi was thirty-seven in 1850, when he began work on Rigoletto, and it was his seventeenth opera. Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, was premiered in 1839, a year before the revised version of Lucrezia Borgia, and Donizetti still had La fille du régiment and Don Pasquale ahead of him. Crutchfield’s note stresses that Verdi began his operatic career in collaboration with Donizetti and received warm, solid support from the older composer. If Verdi modelled Rigoletto so closely on Lucrezia Borgia, we should not be surprised to find more than vestigial signs of his stylistic origins in it.
The main issues concern tempi and dynamics. Verdi, argues Crutchfield, used metronome markings systematically, beginning with Rigoletto, for the remainder of his career. There can be no doubt that he found them useful within the variables of artistic expression. His tempo indications are often quite different from what is in practice today, and he cites several examples, most strikingly “Questa o quella”—marked 80, often sung at 116 or even faster—and Rigoletto’s farewell to Gilda—marked 96, often performed today somewhere in the 60s or even 50s. Also, modern singers and conductors routinely ignore Verdi’s dynamic indications, which are predicated on the singers’ using a full range from pp to ff. He observes that singers today simply sing as loud as they can throughout. One can here wide dynamics in use in early recordings of singers who actually sang during Verdi’s lifetime. These don’t always agree with the markings, but they show an entirely different spirit of performance than the interpretative uniformity which set in during the 1950s. and yes, the widely circulated commercial lp recordings which began to appear in that period are partly to blame. Crutchfield takes pains to disclaim a rigid approach to these issues—both in the essay and in his performance. These indications in the score are guidelines to a better understanding of the music and drama, not a formula. There are none of the horrendous rigid sprints through Beethoven symphonies from the early days of HIP. In fact this essay proves to be one of the wisest and most intelligent discussions of the approach you will find. Everyone interested in classical music should read it.
The fruits of this study, as executed by the agile, somewhat reduced forces of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Crutchfield’s precise and energetic direction, and sung by such outstanding bel canto-literate singers as Georgia Jarman (Gilda), Stephen Powell (Rigoletto), who was such a splendid Don Rodrigue in Don Carlos last year, and John Osborn as the Duke, proved every bit as much of a revelation as one might expect. Rigoletto came fully to life, as I’ve never yet witnessed on stage, as if a veil of weary convention had been dropped. Frankly, I haven’t exactly sought out Rigoletto in recent years. This performance inspired me to fall in love with the opera all over again and to appreciate just what a revolutionary creation it is. The essence of mature Verdi is all there: economy, directness, an unflinching eye into character and the way individuals interact, sometimes with calculation, sometimes rashly, ultimately disastrously. As much attention that has been paid to singing and playing Verdi’s music correctly and beautifully, everything pointed towards a dramatic purpose, and one emerged with a feeling of having been at close quarters with an especially harrowing tragedy. The musical details all serve human values.
The bel canto ornamentation which was still very much a part of singers’ technique in the mid-nineteenth century was fairly restrained in this performance. One exception was “O caro nome,” which could well serve as a poster child for the Caramoor approach. Georgia Jarman, who displayed a splendid, full voice, as well as a fine command and elegance in phrasing throughout the evening, sang the aria with a rich variety of ornament, but it was directed not so much toward vocal display as enhancing the expressive qualities of the tune, which is so familiar with audiences that it has lost much of its power. Only an exceptionally sensitive performance can bring this back, and Jarman succeeded in this by using the rests and dotted rhythms to convey the peculiar mixture of expectation and hesitation that wells up in the innocent, inexperienced girl’s heart and mind, as she contemplates the false name her lover has given her. Crutchfield’s direction supported this with empathy. The audience, who responded to the aria with long, enthusiastic applause, it seemed, was as thrilled to hear the music refreshed by the elaborate but tasteful ornamentation as to be brought so affectingly into Gilda’s intimate thoughts. Jarman’s performance excelled in every way.
John Osborn sang the Duke with elegance, fire, and an easy caddishness, while Stephen Powell as Rigoletto combined the requisite weight and dark color with a mellow upper range which recalled the voice and lyrical style of Tito Gobbi, a great master of the role. Nicole Piccolomini as Maddalena and bass Jeffrey Beruan as Sparafucile, two former Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists acquitted themselves most commendably.
Every summer, the Caramoor opera program brings some revelation, whether in the form of a forgotten masterpiece or a reinterpreted repertory standard. I can only express my gratitude to Mr. Crutchfield and his cast for providing me with a totally new perspective on an opera I thought I knew too well. The great Don Carlos (sic) of last summer was equally enlightening. Caramoor used the French title, because they performed the Paris version in the original French, which is virtually never done. Claudio Abbado led a performance and made a recording of it in the 1980s, retaining the introductory scene at Fontainebleau, performed as Act I at the Opéra in 1867, which is extremely appealing, but detracts from the focus of the drama. With it, the opera becomes a romantic story of thwarted love. Without it, as it was performed in Verdi’s 1883-4 revision and at Caramoor, it is a taut political tragedy. It was astonishing how rapid were the pace and powerful the chain of events as one followed another inexorably toward Rodrigue’s and Don Carlos’ undoing. The French language, however, was an even greater revelation. Verdi wrote his music for French vowels and French rhythms, and the occasional awkwardnesses which are quite apparent in the common Italian version disappear. In French the text and music sound entirely natural, and, sung with the clear diction cultivated by the Caramoor singers, becomes the vehicle of musical drama. There is no doubt that this should become the standard version in performance, but even major houses will not often succeed as completely as Crutchfield and his superb cast.
Don Carlo itself was a discovery itself, when it made its reappearance in the repertory some fifty years ago, when the great scholar-critic Andrew Porter carried out the primary research which led to an acceptable performing version. It was both gracious and wise of Caramoor to invite Mr. Porter to participate in the pre-performance lectures, discussions, and concerts. The combination of Porter, Gossett, and Crutchfield on the dais was as revealing and delightful as the opera itself.
This meeting of scholarship and art is what keeps opera young and vital. This is what we need, not Regieoper!