Πέμπτη, 14 Ιανουαρίου 2016

T-10: The other Don, the other ghost, and the Spanish Inquisition…

Well, hello there! I realize that the last time I wrote something meaningful was on the last day of 2014 and, after a whole year’s silence, I’m finally back, so, cue the drum roll! Or not. Whatever. Anyway, first things first: Happy 2016 – although, so far it hasn’t been great; I mean, c’mon, David Bowie AND Alan Rickman have already died? Both at the age of 69 and because of cancer? It’s 2016 for crying out loud! Why have we not discovered a cure for cancer yet? I guess we are way too busy doing other things, like fighting wars against terrorism and such. I suppose it makes sense. The statistical probabilities of dying in a terrorist attack these days has increased exponentially – even for us Europeans. But, if there is one thing I have learned through art, it is that we should not stop living our lives because of the fear. So, yes, I am still here, still reporting on my great love: opera.
As to why I disappeared for a year? I do have a pretty good explanation: I had to write my master’s thesis (which, at some point I am going to upload to Academia.edu for anyone crazy enough to read it) so now I am officially a Master of Arts! Congratulations me! I do not even know what it means to be a “Master of Arts”. Additionally, after completing my studies, I got into an incredible inspirational trip. I started writing again (not on the blogosphere obviously), but for myself. I rediscovered my passion for short stories and I even started a somewhat longer one. I do not have to tell you that you will probably never read those, because I am not sure what to do with them (once I’ve finished them, which, I have not…); but still, I did some writing. And finally, 2015 was one hell of a culture experience for me here, because I had a totally booked out schedule and it was brilliant! I can tell you, I have never felt more alive than last year – despite the fact that I am still single! So, yes, 2015 was a good year for me, but now it is finally time to get down to business once more.
I vaguely remember promising a new list. And today I am going to make good by that promise by introducing the new Top 10 of Operas I Love to Hate! First up on this lovely countdown is a masterpiece by Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlos!


Ok, so, you know that saying about opera being where the soprano and the tenor want to have sex but the baritone interferes? Well, in this case, it is the bass who is responsible and for a completely idiotic reason too (he gets to sing one brilliant aria, that’s it). The plot is actually quite simple (based loosely on historical facts): Don Carlos (the tenor), Heir to the throne of Spain and son of King Philippe II (the bass), is supposed to marry Elisabeth de Valois (the soprano) to seal a certain peace treaty. Naturally, and even though these two fall in love at the beginning, Philippe II behaves like an a** and decides he wants to marry Elisabeth instead. He could easily be her grandfather, the age difference is so huge! And, there is no reason why his marriage to her would seal the treaty better than if his son married her, because Carlos is his heir! So, yeah, Philippe II is just being mean. There are some other characters that complicate matters as well: first you have Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, who – and that is definitely not just my idea – has a huge crush on Carlos. Yes, they are best friends, but his idea of friendship, I am certain, goes a bit further than Carlos’. And then there is Eboli, who serves no purpose whatsoever in the entire plot, even though there is great potential for the character. She too sings a fairly famous and recognizable aria at some point.
Anyway, let’s do a short character breakdown. First we have Don Carlos. He is a bit of a pawn and doesn’t get much done. He loves Elisabeth and he succeeds in staying away from her after she becomes his step-mother. They do have the occasional interactions, but they are not in the least bit erotic or anything. Mainly, because she shuts him down, like, all the time. Then, there is his relationship with Rodrigo. He sees a friend in him and is too innocent to conceive his friends’ true feelings for him (I mean, how much more evidence does a guy need than their famous duet???) He turns a cold shoulder to Eboli – who is infatuated with him, but has no idea how to show it; and he hates his father for stealing his bride right under his nose. Most of the time, Carlos behaves like a teenager; literally!
Then there is Philippe II. There are no redeeming qualities to this guy. He steals his son’s bride; he refuses any help to the oppressed in Flanders; he condemns his son to death at the Grand Inquisitor’s suggestion; and he still wonders why nobody – especially Elisabeth – loves him! Granted, his monologue is sublime, but, with the deepest apologies to Verdi, who, if anything, knows exactly how to redeem a fallen character through his music, the trick doesn’t work this time. Philippe II remains an a**hole.

Rodrigo, then, the Marquis of Posa, is perhaps the actual political hero here. He is a supporter of the Flemish cause, but knows how to be diplomatic about it and behaves accordingly. Of course, he dies in the end and what a death it is too! His death simply solidifies my opinion that Rodrigo and Carlos should be lovers, actually, because Rodrigo dies in Carlos place and in his arms. I mean, how much more obvious can it get? And that duet! My God, I melt every time I hear it, it is such glorious music!

Moving on, there is Eboli, who, as I have already stated, harbors a secret crush on Carlos. But because her feelings are not reciprocated, she devises a plan to reveal his affections for his step-mother to the King. Now, there is another – subtler – love story going on here as well: Eboli is Elisabeth’s lady-in-waiting sort of. They are relatively close. And when Eboli realizes that she has condemned not only Carlos but Elisabeth through her actions, she decides to join a convent. So, maybe, Eboli too harbors some feelings for Elisabeth and not just Carlos (or maybe I am overreaching here, but it does make some sense). However, considering that her character is completely underused in the entire plot, there is no concrete evidence. Bottom line: Eboli is redundant in this storyline. She does sing this, however:

Then there is the Spanish Inquisition. One thing I absolutely love about this opera is the "Auto-da-fé", the infamous burning of the heretics in the third Act! It is simply brilliant and terrifying to be reminded of these dark times of the past, which are becoming once again terribly contemporary if one takes a glance towards the Middle East and what rages on down there. Trust me, the difference between the Spanish Inquisition and the religious fanaticism practiced by some people today, is literally nothing – not even the religion! Essentially it comes down to the same thing: murdering people for having an opinion not sanctioned by the respective religious leaders! And the Grand Inquisitor who advises the King to execute his own son is also an extreme example of the Church’s powers. Simply terrifying! (The following video is the "safe" American version of old - nothing like the stuff you might get to see on German stages these days... Guess which one I prefer!)

Finally, we have Elisabeth of Valois. You know my affinity for strong female characters, and she is one of them, although it may not seem so at first. You could accuse her of being too frightened to follow her heart when she learns of her impending marriage to Philippe II. But let us not forget that Elisabeth is the ultimate pawn here: she is the sacrificial lamb – she has no choice, but to do as ordered. Instead of beginning an adulterous affair with her step-son, however, which would have been the logical thing to do after her marriage, she is faithful to Philippe II, not out of love, but out of a sense of duty. Elisabeth succeeds in remaining innocent throughout the entire opera – which should earn her some respect. And, of course, she has a showstopper at the beginning of Act five that simply brings the house down (if sung well).

And then there is the ghost! Ok, the debate on whether it is actually the ghost of the deceased Carlos IV, grandfather to Carlos, or a monk who just happens on the scene is still going on, but I’m going with the version that says it is, because what else would make this opera even grittier than a ghost come to rescue his grandson! I do not know what kind of a rescue that is, but hey, ghosts know better and we are not to argue with them.

So, yes, Verdi’s Don Carlos is a weird case. There are a lot of problems with the source material too: do you do the French or the Italian version? Do you include the Fontainebleau scene or not? Let me tell you, without it, the opera simply doesn’t make sense. So far, the best production I have seen is the one from Munich by Jürgen Rose (the man is a genius, by the way). Would I go see this opera often? Only if Anja Harteros were singing Elisabeth (I have seen her three times in this role so far), because, even though there are some pretty amazing pieces in it, it is a really long and pointless story in the end. So, there you have it! Don Carlos is great, but only under certain conditions…

Τετάρτη, 31 Δεκεμβρίου 2014

T-1: The Day the Witch Met the (K)night

Ladies and gentlemen, this is it! After almost two years, we have finally reached the top spot on this list. It was an eventful time, I must admit. This list has kept me company through some interesting changes and I am slightly bummed it is now over. But, not all good things must come to an end, so I can promise you that 2015 will hold more fun and entertaining entries – provided I can find the time and inspiration required for such a task during my last semester of my master studies; those of you that have done something similar, know that the last semester is dedicated to writing, writing, writing (and reading, reading, reading obviously). I am confident, however, that I will perform well enough to be able to spend some time on future entries.
Also, in case you have not noticed it or are on entirely different calendar, today marks the last day of 2014 for those of us that live in the western part of Europe. It was a Richard Strauss year, to begin with (yey!). Apart from that, a number of important musicians left us for the other side (Claudio Abbado and Lorin Maazel come to mind instantly). International politics changed very little, new terrorist organizations came to take up the mantle from old ones, people are dying like flies in certain areas of the world thanks to the outbreak of Ebola… I could go on cataloguing the newsworthy parts of 2014, but that is not my job. I am not a journalist (although at some point I thought I might become one) and I should not speak my truth, because my truth is offensive – to say the least. Therefore I will stick to my 2014, which was good. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good and it left me with a sense of satisfaction. Granted, I still am lonely, hardly go out to live life in the broader sense (or at least a sense a certain somebody I know has), but let’s face it: not everybody is meant to be a pop star, or merely a star. Sometimes it is more important to be the silent stream and not the raging river: it is easier to drink water from the first one, while the latter might pose some safety concerns to the thirsty traveler. So, I remain optimistic about my chances in life.
And there was another reason why 2014 was so good to me: I finally took up the opportunity given to me as a student in one of the richest (both financially but most importantly, culturally) cities of Europe. I literally exploited the offerings the theatre, opera and orchestras had to offer and I am simply grateful that I can enjoy these until July 2015. I experienced incredible performances. I was moved to tears, I laughed my heart out, I was shocked and appalled (because Regietheater) and I discovered sublime works of art that need to be made more “famous” or even “popular”. All that to the incredible price of 8 to 9 Euros per performance! But enough of my year. I have made a decision, based on a suggestion by a co-student here to write a book and I plan on doing that. So, when the time comes and you are interested, you will be able to get a better insight (not specifically on my 2014, but in general). Today I am here to write my final entry in my list of the 10 operas I absolutely love and couldn’t live without.
Let me start with some introductory notes, to keep up with tradition (yes, I just spent one page “introducing”, but not the subject matter). A few months ago I found myself in a lovely group of people and we were discussing a variety of things. Thankfully those had nothing to do with politics, but arts, literature and philosophy. At some point the question was asked of who is the most important thinker, artist, in short, person of note that influences our everyday lives, whose ideas we might accept and try to live by, you get the idea, right? Well, when my turn came up, I instantly and without thinking replied: Georg Friedrich Händel and Richard Strauss. The reactions I got were quite interesting, but definitely positive. The one that stood out, however, was a very simple question: how can you combine two composers whose composing style is so diametrically different, since they were born almost two centuries apart? The answer is rather simple: they both wrote sublime music for the female voice and their quests in their operas are usually focused on the tragedy of love, both, however, having enough sense to know that humor is a necessary part of life, therefore adding moments that are truly hilarious. And finally, both have left at least one work that contains an incredible and unique reading of the female psyche. As for their lifestyles, well, there are more than just enough similarities there (the only notable difference in Händels life was his love life, which remains a mystery, even today; my personal guess is that he either was gay or asexual, but that is my personal guess). So, as you might have guessed already, my dear and faithful reader, today’s entry will once again deal with two operas, rather than one. I know, you might say I’m cheating, but, let’s keep in mind that in the Winter Olympics of 2002 in Salt Lake City in the pairs competition in figure skating, two gold medals were awarded, because the judges were corrupt… (By the way I totally agreed that the Canadians were better than the Russians and deserved the gold, but those are really old stories!)
So, here it comes then: the winners of the Top 10 Operas I Love are… drum roll, please… Alcina and Der Rosenkavalier! By the way, if I may congratulate myself, the title of this entry is brilliant, I know.


Back so soon? Alright then, read on at your own peril. The story in both cases is about love, in all its forms and facets. In Alcina the title figure is a witch, who lives on a remote island and enjoys love games, but bores relatively easy. Therefore, she changes her past lovers into all kinds of things (rocks, lions, bushes etc). But, as it so happens, she eventually falls in love with Ruggiero, who is a knight and who also happens to be betrothed to Bradamante, a kick-ass warrior princess herself (at least in the original by Ariosto she is an extremely successful warrior). Those two are truly in love with each other, there is no doubt about that. Because, once Ruggiero disappears, Bradamante sets out on a quest to find him. Ruggiero does not love Alcina, but is charmed (literally) into thinking he is. As you can guess, magic plays a significant role in this opera, because it is through Angelica’s magic ring (it negates all magic surrounding it) that Ruggiero realizes the truth and remembers his one true love, Bradamante. But, Alcina falls in love with him and sadly for her this is her first – and in all probability – last time. I could go on for a very long time explaining all the little details in this opera, but I won’t. Instead, I shall refer you to my bachelor thesis "Armida - Medea - Alcina: Literary Origins and G. F. Handels Operatic Counterparts" (can be found online), which devotes an entire chapter to Alcina and her story.
Here I will only try to explain the love affairs that arise. Obviously the most prominent one is the one between Alcina and Ruggiero. This love affair is an artificial one, in that it was created by Alcina through a love spell. Therefore, it is also one sided. While Alcina develops true emotions, Ruggiero is simply enchanted. Once the spell breaks through Angelica’s ring, he immediately remembers Bradamante. An extremely important scene in this regard is Ruggiero’s aria in the second act “Mio bel tesoro”. The parts sung aside are the key to this aria. (The absolute center piece for Ruggiero in this opera is his other aria “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto”, also in the second act, because in it his confusion is made perfectly clear).

The next love affair is that between Ruggiero and Bradamante. These two, as already stated, are the real deal and in the real world of opera seria, they would have been the protagonists. But Handel breaks the rules and places Alcina in the front. So, while we do have the usual trials and tribulations all heroic pairs have to go through in opera seria to prove they truly love each other, this is not what drives the plot. Yes, it is Bradamante’s arrival on Alcina’s island that sets the action in motion, but this is not the core of the piece. The audience knows that Ruggiero and Bradamante will find each other again, therefore this love affair is simply present to “play by the rules”.
The second most interesting love “affair” in this opera is an ingenious touch by Handel himself. He took the liberty of adding a boy soprano to play Oberto, a young boy, the son of one of Alcina’s former lovers – but importantly – not her own. Alcina has transformed Astolfo, Oberto’s father, into a lion. But she has kept the boy and is clearly exhibiting signs of motherly affection. This is one man in the making she loves as a mother. Oberto reciprocates those feelings, but at the same time his deep love and devotion to his father prevents him from fully accepting Alcina’s care. He constantly searches for him and it is his love that helps him see through Alcina’s plan in the end and prevents him from killing his father. The moment Oberto turns away from Alcina and accuses her of being a barbarian, is a turning point for both characters: Oberto grows up and shows magnanimity and Alcina loses the one man she felt no attraction to, but loved with a certain kind of innocence.
Finally, we have a short lived comic relief. This is provided by Morgana, Alcina’s sister and Ricciardo, who is essentially Bradamante in male disguise… Morgana is actually betrothed, or at least in a relationship, with Oronte, Alcina’s general. But clearly their relationship is not what it used to be, because the moment Morgana sets eyes upon Ricciardo, she immediately forgets Oronte and woos the newcomer. Some very funny scenes ensue between the two of them in the first act, but the laughter dies out in the second act. This love affair is a reversal of the central one, since Morgana falls for a trick; and this relationship has almost no time to bud, because the action is paced rather quickly. It gives Handel the opportunity, however, to compose an incredibly beautiful and elegiac aria for Morgana in the beginning of the third act.

You might say, now, that Alcina has absolutely no similarities with Der Rosenkavalier. The first one is a drama, because there is no happy ending (Alcina loses Ruggiero and her magical powers, Ruggiero is doomed to die once he returns to the real world, thus leaving Bradamante a widow), while the second one is considered a romantic comedy (even though neither Strauss nor Hofmannsthal ever dubbed it one). However, Der Rosenkavalier is not as funny as one might think.
Let us take things from the very beginning: yes, there is an older (by older we mean somewhat over thirty) aristocratic lady, who, in her husband’s absence amuses herself with a younger (by younger we mean a boy of seventeen) cousin. Did I mention that the cousin is also written for a female voice? Trouser role, everyone! Yey! Said aristocratic lady, however, is extremely wise and in light of the events of the first act – the arrival of the vulgar cousin from the land – she contemplates love, life and the meaning of everything, thus bringing a rather gloomy atmosphere about. 

And, also, delivers the blow to her own “undoing”, by sending her young lover as a representative of the Baron to the young brides’ home. If that doesn’t spell disaster, I don’t know what does! Obviously the two young people fall in love at first sight (the scene is brilliantly set to music and words) and obviously their love triumphs over both the Baron, who is made a fool in the third act and the Feldmarschallin, who, being who she is and having foreseen this moment, graciously blesses the union. Happy ending? Not by a long shot!

Love in the time of Der Rosenkavalier is a trifling matter, especially in the aristocratic circles. Take for example the two thugs (they too have their uses, of course), who sell the black paper. In it, they report about every love affair happening in the happy city of Vienna. The Feldmarschallin is appalled by this, but, at the same time she too is a member of this elite that cuckolds husbands and gets the same treatment (probably). The only distinction between her and every other Viennese aristocrat is that she is prepared to face the consequences and understands how the world works. In her own experience (and words) men always fall for the younger girls and there is no exception, not even her beloved Octavian can escape that fate.
While at first we believe Octavian to be true to his Bichette, once Sophie enters the picture, we are manipulated into rooting for this love over every other. Why? Because the Baron of Lerchenau is presented as a complete buffoon and a bit of a savage too (and womanizer, yes) and because the music is so sublime, we are left without a doubt that this was a match made in Heaven. Then, of course, comes the third act and its divine conclusion. If this were a Rossini opera, we would expect the Feldmarschallin to invite Octavian and Sophie for threesomes, every time the husband was out of the picture. Alas, this is not Rossini and there needs to be a clear cut ending. Or is there? If one reads the words of the final trio more carefully, one immediately sees that all three characters realize that there is nothing clear cut about their relationship. At the very beginning, in the “recitative”, Octavian addresses the Feldmarschallin, ignoring Sophie altogether. It is the Feldmarschallin that commands the scene, even in the final trio. Sophie, growing up as well in this scene, realizes that while she gets to keep Octavian, the Feldmarschallin will always have a piece of him. And Octavian, in typical male fashion, is absolutely torn between the two of them. Only when the Feldmarschallin leaves the stage, does he manage to focus entirely on Sophie. So, while the music is quite simply divine, both Strauss and Hofmannsthal make a silent comment about fidelity (Strauss, however, was extremely faithful to his Pauline, even though she forever remained jealous and never fully trusted him…)

     So, why are these two operas on the top of my list? They are a bittersweet moment in the history of opera. Strauss’ work remains extremely successful and popular, even today, which is no surprise, while Handel’s is slightly less known, but is definitely gaining in global recognition. I have seen both operas live in Munich (and Alcina in Vienna as well). While the Munich production of Der Rosenkavalier is a fairly traditional staging, it is nonetheless very entertaining and to this day I believe that I have had the pleasure of seeing it four times (each time, the audience breaks out into applause whenever the curtain is raised to reveal the second act stage, which is indeed quite marvelous). Alcina on the other hand was a one timer, both in Munich and Vienna. But in both cases the protagonists were Anja Harteros (who might not strike you as a Handelian soprano, but her Alcina is something truly incredible) and Vesselina Kasarova, who is brilliant as Ruggiero and – having sung the role quite often – manages to bring forth elements that are crucial to understanding this character. I must say here that my first encounter with both singers (whom I have come to love and respect deeply ever since that day) was in Munich’s Alcina. It was also the last performance of that particular staging (by Christoph Loy), were Kasarova had a twisted ankle, could hardly stand on her own, yet managed to pull through an evening that lasted almost four and a half hours, delivering one of her best performances to date. The Munich production is also one of the best interpretations of this opera I have seen so far and I truly hope that at some point in the future, the Bavarian National Opera will pick it up again… The Vienna staging was totally weird and hardly made any sense, but it was occasionally funny. There is a DVD/Blu-ray version of it, so you can pick it up or see it online. I do have a dream that one day I might be asked to stage Alcina, because I have some truly great ideas for this opera, but that is only wishful thinking…
So, that was that. I know I did not deliver in this last entry. I apologize deeply, but I felt compelled to finish the list before 2014 was officially over in my time zone, so that I could start 2015 with a clean slate. Despite the shortcomings of this entry, I hope you enjoyed it, at least a bit.

Well, with my admittance of my inability to wow you before the year ended, I would like to wish you all a very happy new year, filled with music, opera, theatre, good literature, friends, family, a sufficiently stuffed wallet, wise decisions and above all else health! Happy 2015 people! We made it! 

Κυριακή, 30 Νοεμβρίου 2014

T-2: Metamorphoses of the female soul or how the comedienne steals the show

Let me just start by saying this: I do not know how I first came to know Richard Strauss. He is not a composer whose work (operatic or otherwise) you get to hear often in Greece in general, let alone my tiny hometown (which can brag about having one state symphony orchestra, but not the endurance to play or hear Strauss). So, truly, I do not know what tipped the scale towards him. Was it an opera? Some of his lieder? One of his more famous symphonic works? I wish that I could answer all these questions. But I can’t. It wasn’t part of my familiar environment either. I mean, we did not sit during lunch at home and say: “Let’s put some Strauss on!” Nope! And I know for a fact that my father, for example, isn’t really a fan. My mother is an altogether different story, in that she studied musicology under one of the most renowned Strauss experts in Germany and maintains contact with him even today! But this doesn’t mean that she is as crazy about the guy as I am either. So, it’s just me. And to me it feels as if this was always this way – as if from the very beginning I shared a connection with the great master. And that’s enough explanation for me. Some things are better left undisturbed. This is one of them.
By now the only thing you might have extrapolated from this opening soliloquy is that I am going to talk about an opera by Richard Strauss. And you would be right! Finally – some of the more observant of you might even add; considering that it is 2014 and a Strauss anniversary and I haven’t yet made any comments about him. That is about to change with today’s contribution (and, who knows, we still have one more number to go, or don’t we?) You might guess as to my choice too. There are quite a few operas that might come into question actually (I wouldn’t be a true Strauss fan, if I didn’t like them pretty much all), but really only two are the absolute contestants for this list. I’ll be revealing the first one today. The other will have to wait – by the way, this was a major spoiler alert as to what lies on top of the list, but who pays any attention anyway?


and the reason for that is quite simple: according to a very fine German book called „Der einzig wahre Opernführer“, Ariadne auf Naxos (which is the subject matter of this post) has no significant plot whatsoever. Which in turns is extremely wrong, but the book is a funny book and when it says that there is no significant plot whatsoever, it simply means that the plot is so convoluted and writhe with hidden messages that you cannot possibly begin to explain it in just a few lines. That is the truth of the thing and for this reason I will not give any plot summaries this time. Take a moment (well, about one hour and a half to be exact) to watch the opera first, in case you haven’t already and then come back.

Today I will try something different. Instead of analyzing the plot in terms of its occurrence, I will give a very personal insight into why this opera means so much to me, through its core characters. Then, if all goes well, I will address some key questions this brilliant piece of theatre poses and hopefully I will reach some kind of a conclusion. I have to apologize upfront for any inconvenience this post might cause to you, my dear readers, because today it will get very personal and I don’t do well at subjects that are close to my heart.
The first character that needs to be mentioned is the Composer. His onstage presence and music in the libretto take up about 15 minutes of the whole thing. One might say that he is a minor character in terms of the time allotted to his person. But that would be an understatement of the grandest proportions ever! In the magically crafted text by Hofmannsthal, these 15 minutes are more than enough to explore the depths of a truly tragic hero, who, in a sense is the first original emo (I doubt that most emos out there are even aware of that…) The Composer is a trouser role. Strauss composed it for a soprano and the original cast of 1916 had Lotte Lehmann personifying the part. Today, it is usually mezzos who take up the challenge, which kind of makes sense. My personal favorites from my generation of singers are Daniela Sindram and Sophie Koch. But that is enough advertising for the moment, back to the character. The Composer is, by all appearances, the typical antisocial, secluded, totally emotional and sensitive archetype of an artist. He is aloof, does not understand how the world around him operates and his only motivation for doing what he does is his commitment to Music. His only friend is his mentor, who makes sure his pupil gets a commission. He is a loner. But he craves for human affection and most importantly, love. He just doesn’t know it yet. His worldview includes only one thing: Music and at the beginning of the Prologue (I will get back to that part later on), he is frustrated that no one understands the importance of his composition. His appearance in the beginning is quite comical and emphasizes in a very eloquent way his lack of worldly experience. The Composer treads in uncharted waters and what is most striking about this experience is his honesty about everything. Obviously this honesty gets misunderstood by everyone around him, because the real world is not accustomed to honest people. There are two turning points: the first one comes with the realization that he has to compromise in order to see his work performed and the second one when he meets the comedienne.
Accepting compromise is a painful process for him. He does it very reluctantly and in the end (which end though?) he regrets it altogether. His dramatic recount of a prophecy received as a child testifies to that painful realization. The Composer sees things in black and white – there are no in between shades for him. What he believes to be right, must necessarily, in his opinion, represent the view of every single person in the world. His venture into society forces him to see that things are not this way. His pure imagination becomes tainted by the corrupt system of the aristocracy and all that goes with it. His ideals receive a fateful blow. But, instead of making this a tragic story about a person unable to cope with society, Strauss and Hofmannsthal do one better: in the Composer there is hope. It is never openly expressed nor do we actually see it fulfilled. But the hope is there for two reasons: first, because he never loses his faith in Music as the holiest of things and second, because for a brief moment he finds Love (that brief moment is open to interpretation by the various directors who have staged this work throughout the years; I’ll come back to that point as well).
This finding of Love is the second turning point, mentioned above. The Composer’s meeting with Zerbinetta, the young girl who sings and dances and fucks through life, theatre and men is one of the sweetest, yet at the same time most heartbreaking moments in the history of opera. If the Composer is the absolute symbol of an antisocial hero, Zerbinetta is the exact opposite. She knows everybody, is known by everybody and has a very cheery disposition. Essentially these two are the two sides of a single coin – and that is why, theoretically speaking, they would make the perfect couple. Opposites attract, obviously and this situation here is no exception. But while Zerbinetta has a larger-than-life kind of on stage existence and spreads her antics through both the Prologue and the actual opera, the Composer is left behind (or is he?).
Zerbinetta is the second most important character in this play. For one because she is there from beginning to end. She also has the showpiece aria of the opera – a pyrotechnical scene that requires brilliant coloratura, perfect timing and an accomplished actress – which has been called by Diana Damrau “the Mount Everest of coloratura sopranos”. Diana Damrau is one of those rare performers who make the role of Zerbinetta their own and I am truly glad I got to see her perform this live in what is arguably the greatest interpretation of this work ever made (more on that later). Now, as I have already mentioned, Zerbinetta is a comedienne and someone who has a very open minded stance towards romance and relationships. In the words of the Dance Master, she has no problem in improvising her appearance, because she always plays herself, which, as it turns out is true. Let me say here, however, that Ariadne auf Naxos is an extremely complex work and it would be unfair to its heroines to limit them to such comments only. In typical Strauss-Hofmannsthal fashion, this work is about change, about the potential of transformation within each of us, the ability to realize our true self, through experience. The Composer undergoes such a change, as mentioned already. But does Zerbinetta follow on that line or is she truly a one sided character, who only plays herself?
Depending on the staging, the answer to this question varies. There are two reasons for that. The first is her central scene in the Prologue with the Composer. In that she “confesses” to him that in truth she is a lonely individual who puts on a smile and faces life that way, making everyone around her believe she is always happy and satisfied. But can this “confession” (the “” both times are consciously placed around the word) be accepted as an honest one or is it a cleverly employed trick she uses on the Composer, to convince him to accept the changes in his work? The scene is way too short to provide us with a definitive answer. Therefore, there are a number of ways to interpret this. One way is to see the Prologue and the ensuing opera as one work, in which case Zerbinetta’s great aria in the opera negates her “confession” and proves the Dance Master’s statement. In this case, Zerbinetta’s scene with the Composer in the Prologue is a clever trick – she knows what kind of power she exacts on men, and uses that to fool the Composer into believing she actually might have feelings for him, when in truth she only wants the play to get going, so that she doesn’t lose her paycheck. That is the absolute realistic and opportunistic reading of this scene. The second way is again to see Prologue and Opera as one, but this time to really open the doors for a possible romance between the two characters. In such readings, the Composer usually remains on stage, even though the Prologue has ended and his presence is not mentioned throughout the rest of the opera. In this second reading, Zerbinetta is truthful about herself and reveals herself to be more like the Composer and less than a femme fatale. If you believe in fairy tales and happy endings, then this is the way for you to interpret this scene. Finally, there is the third way, which is to remain entirely faithful to the text and separate Prologue and Opera altogether. In that case, what Zerbinetta says afterwards in her big scene in the opera, has no bearing in her scene with the Composer and therefore that scene is just a small, but beautiful – in musical and textual means – blip. The Prologue represents real life, the Opera the illusion. But, doesn’t Zerbinetta always portray herself according to the Dance Master?
In order to fully explore Zerbinetta’s change – if indeed there is one – we have to consider her showcase scene in the opera itself. Considering that she has only two major scenes in total – the one with the Composer and the one in the opera – it is important to see the scene in relation to the other characters on stage at the time. I have already gone into the first scene in detail. Here, Zerbinetta’s counterpart is Ariadne, the protagonist of the Composer’s opera. But, in contrast to the first scene with the Composer, where both characters express themselves, here Ariadne remains silent. One way to explain this is of course to see it as an impossible moment for Ariadne, since Zerbinetta’s intermezzo is improvised and does not belong in the original plot. But that would be the pragmatic way of interpreting the silence.
Let’s focus on what Zerbinetta actually says in this scene. She begins rather playfully, even by making japes at Ariadne. Seeing, however, that they do not bring the desired effect, she then tries to establish a different form of connection with her, by saying that she knows what if feels to be abandoned and that Ariadne is not the only one. And then she says this immortal line: “Men are unfaithful!” (Do pay attention to the exquisite changes of mood in the music itself during the entire first part of this scene – they vary from happy-go-lucky to dramatic to playful to painful…) But instead of continuing on the line of male unfaithfulness, she does something even better: by accepting that as a given, she does the same to them. She plays with men (almost) the same way men play with women and she enjoys it immensely. Zerbinetta loves men – nothing will ever change that for her; she cannot hold back from them. But instead of moping around when she gets dumped for someone else, she does the dumping! Her actions are perfectly justifiable to her. What follows is a recount of some of her amorous adventures, delivered in a very sensual and rather explicit musical way. It is important to note one thing here: Zerbinetta, by today’s standards would be called a slut. But there is nothing slutty about her. Quite the contrary, she does what she does out of conviction and – yes – love towards men. She is aware of the fact that she is attracted by them, but instead of waiting for the “right” one, she takes every chance she has to satisfy herself. In this we find yet another gender barrier broken: if a man today acts the way Zerbinetta acts, he is considered a playboy and is admired by his male peers and craved by the ladies. The prodigious Don Juan is a positive symbol for both men and women. However, if a woman behaves the way Zerbinetta does, even if she is unmarried, she is immediately labeled as a slut, a whore etc. Men do not care for such women much – oh, they do like to fuck them, obviously, but they are still judgmental of them – and women, in their infinite jealousy, will shut someone like that from their social circle and make everything in their power to make sure such a person does not come anywhere near their men. Isn’t that incredible? I believe it is. Which of course is a completely wrong interpretation of Zerbinetta altogether, but that is what would happen were she not a fictional character. Zerbinetta breaks gender boundaries and in her capacity as a comedienne, she cannot be criticized by either men or women.
Her next scene, which comes right after her big aria, is another part of the play in which she interacts with the men in her troupe. This scene can have multiple readings as well. One, it is the troupe’s final intersection with the drama, where they play their part of cheering the audience up with some comic relief. Two, it continues exactly where the previous aria left off, simply to exemplify Zerbinetta’s lose morals. Three, it seals any open doors for the romance of Zerbinetta and the Composer, by openly showing who Zerbinetta really is.
Zerbinetta is the most elusive character in the play. She stands in contrast to both Composer and Prima Donna/Ariadne. It is unclear whether she undergoes any kind of metamorphosis throughout the opera. There is no way to pin her down. She remains a mystery and therefore she absolutely steals the show, which is exactly what the Prima Donna fears…    
The last remaining female character in this opera is the diva. Her character is also present in both the Prologue and the Opera and her character is probably the easiest to interpret. First things first: in the Prologue she acts entirely as one would expect from an opera diva, even by today’s standards. She is extremely proud, has certain psychological problems – namely, she needs to be the one and only and when that is threatened, she becomes a bitch – she needs constant pampering, has no scruples bribing people to get what she wants and generally is a master at overreacting in the grandest of fashions (most stage directors like to have their Primadonnas faint at a certain point in the Prologue). What this portrayal makes of her is this: the Prima Donna does not care about the music or the character she is about to embody, but only about her fame. Which, I suppose, is true. There is no genuine interest on her part about the score that is being mutilated; only about the amount of music she will end up singing (the more music she has, the greatest impression she will make on the audience).
By the time the actual Opera begins and she has transformed into Ariadne, the convention is simply that she is no longer the Prima Donna, but the main character of Ariadne auf Naxos an opera by the Composer. It is exactly what happens every night in every theatre around the world: the diva, no matter how over- or underpaid she is, how likeable or detestable she is in real life, she transforms into something else; usually the tragic heroine who ends up winning the sympathies of the audience. You know what I mean, if you have listened to even the slightest amount of scuttlebutt regarding opera singers. But there is a problem, even here: Strauss’ music for Ariadne is so deep, only Renée Flemming can sing it without meaning it (yes, you get it right, I do not like Renée Flemming in Strauss – she should stick to the alternative things she occasionally does, like that “Dark Hope” album). Take a moment to appreciate, for example, the aria “Es gibt ein Reich” performed by THE Ariadne of the previous generation Jessye Norman. If you do not get moved to your core by the music, the words and the interpretation, then you do not deserve to be called a member of the human race! 

Ariadne the heroine undergoes a major change by the end of the opera. That change is not brought on by Zerbinetta’s intermezzi, but by the arrival of Dionysos, who, through Ariadne, realizes his divine potential. Those last twenty minutes of the opera contain some of the most hopeful and comforting words for every broken heart out there; and the music is simply perfect in all its exuberance and eloquence.
By all accounts then, the Prima Donna/Ariadne character is the least surprising in the triad. Nonetheless, she remains the central character of this work, by being the embodiment of transformation (a necessary feature in pretty much every Straussian opera) for the female soul.
There are some other characters as well; probably the most important one is the Tenor/Dionysos one. But I am being feminist today and I will leave the male part of this opera out of this discussion. And, let’s be honest people, they hardly make an impression on us here! They simply are a collective representation of the real men in our lives, ranging from kind hearted, lonely and outright understanding to egotistical, drunk and only interested in a quick shag (the three girls singing the Nymphs in the opera, while they have some really beautiful music written for them, do not ever become real characters, so they are not really worth mentioning).     
Alright, so now that we are done with the main – and only – characters, I suppose it is only right to address some of the more serious questions. First and foremost, what are we to understand under this peculiar division of the work into a Prologue and an Opera? Fascinating, isn’t it? What one single word can do? It does not say “1st Act” or “Introduction” or “That part which comes before the middle”, no, it says “Prologue”. And that means the world to this work. First of all, you can expect to get some kind of exposition in this part of the play. And indeed you get it. Secondly, you expect to meet some of the key players of the play, obviously. And thirdly, you expect this to be relatively short, because prologues are usually short, otherwise they wouldn’t be prologues. Again, you are quite right. But then the question arises: is this the kind of prologue that is insignificant to the rest of the work, or is something occurring in that prologue going to come back in the future of the play or is it just a whole lot of nothing, justifying its existence simply by the brilliant and lively music it involves? I believe I have provided with some answers to those questions in the above “treatise”. And the one that really matters is this: this work is entirely left to the discrete interpretation of the director (and occasionally the opera house) involved. For example, both productions I know from the Metropolitan Opera in New York (the old one with Jessye Norman and the new one with Deborah Voigt, both of whom I adore) treat the work as having two separate parts. They even have the cast members not returning for the Opera come and take a bow at the end of the Prologue! And then there are the “European” readings where by an overwhelming 95% the work is treated as a whole and most of the times the Composer remains present on stage. Now, as we all know, the Metropolitan is the absolute stronghold of puritanic and perfectly clean performances, which means that the directorial interpretations of Ariadne auf Naxos that can be found on DVD’s are fairly traditional. Change continents and you get all sorts of curious stuff, with the most curious one probably being the production from Zurich, with Elena Mosuc as Zerbinetta. It offered an interesting reading on the relationship between the Composer and Prima Donna/Ariadne, but it was slightly farfetched, to be perfectly honest - you can get an idea from this trailer. 

All kinds of things have been done with this work, because it is so open to interpretation and because the main characters are so fantastically drawn. Believe me when I say that I have seen many different productions of this particular work. Most of them not live, but recorded, but I am quite versed on the numerous interpretations out there. There are two that I particularly like, one of them has been released for posterity, the other one – while there is a recording definitely, it has not been released and that is so so terribly sad. I do hope that the Bavarian State Opera will someday make a Blu-Ray of it, because it is the most perfect production ever made, in my humble opinion. The first one I mean is from Dresden with Sophie Koch as the Composer. It was an unusual staging, but actually very fitting for our times. The idea made sense and it was not vulgar - again you can get an idea from the trailer. 

The one from Munich, was a production by Robert Carsen, with a stellar cast in its day, Adrienne Pieczonka as Prima Donna/Ariadne, Diana Damrau as Zerbinetta and Daniela Sindram as the Composer. I will only say this: when I first saw this production during its original run in the Summer Opera Festival of Munich in July 2008, I left the theatre in tears and I couldn’t stop crying all the way back home! Since then I have seen it a couple more times – no Diana Damrau both times, but you only get that lucky once in a lifetime – and I was equally affected. Of course by the third time, I had finally the chance to grasp certain details concealed in the staging, that revealed Mr. Carsen’s intention for the Composer and Zerbinetta - here is the trailer for that production as well. 

It has always been a dream of mine to stage this particular work, but after seeing this production, I am afraid that I would never dare to go near it, for fear of making a terrible copy of this truly fabulous production. Now, the only thing left for me and this particular work, is to have the pleasure of experiencing Anja Harteros in the role of Prima Donna. I firmly believe that she has the potential to be THE Ariadne of my generation.
So, there you have it. I am sure I have failed to answer all the questions I originally asked. But I did warn you: this work is so close to my heart, that I cannot possibly begin to put it in words. The only thing I can urge you to do, is to either find the closest opera house near you performing this work and go see it, or check out some of the past productions on the Internet. You have to have your own opinion of this work, I’m afraid…

P.S.: The very first paragraph of this entry was written in July 2014, during a lovely open-air concert in Munich, that included Diana Damrau singing some of Strauss’ Lieder. I attempted to finish the entry during August, the time when the Metropolitan was having some serious problems with its unions and the season was in danger of being delayed or even cancelled! I had some rather ironic remarks back then on that subject. But, since it was impossible for me to find the words for everything else, this point became moot and therefore, I had to rework the entry multiple times. This one, I must say, was a real bitch!
P.S. 2: This entry has double the length of every other entry I have made thus far. In case you missed that little detail!
Fan Fact: Natalie Dessay and Diana Damrau (both exceptional Zerbinetta’s) have actually performed together in a production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Obviously they couldn’t both be Zerbinetta at that time and Dessay was the more famous one, so she sang Zerbinetta and Damrau was one of the Nymphs! Cool, right?

Πέμπτη, 22 Μαΐου 2014

T-3: Unfaithfully Yours,

I am not a politically motivated person. I was born and I grew up in Greece, the country that gave birth to democracy, western civilization, yadayadayada… When it comes to politics, however, modern day Greece is the worst place to live in on a global scale. The people running the country are the worst of the worst – they have no “gravitas”, they are no “personas”, they have no clear idea of what they want for the country, only what they want for themselves and they are the same people (or families) since 1973; in short, they are caricatures of politicians, not the real McCoy. The faces may change, but the (sur)names do not. Of course, it is my humble opinion that no strong political figure has emerged after the end of World War II on an international level. Yes, not even JFK. It is my belief that people who decide to run for a political office, no matter how well educated or honest they may be, they will end up corrupt. Politics does not fulfill dreams, it crushes them.
By now you probably wonder why I am opening this entry with an anti-political rant. There are two reasons: The first is that Greece holds communal elections (thankfully I do not have to vote there, since I no longer live there) and of course we have the upcoming elections for the European Parliament (unfortunately I have to vote in these, because I still live in Europe); the second is that the bronze medal on my list goes to an opera with a political theme – although certainly not as political as some Russian operas of the 19th century. By the way, my Facebook account is filled with political adverts from aspiring candidates from Greece. Clearly, the fact that I have changed my living status to an entirely different country does not mean anything to Facebook. Too bad, because all this political propaganda is really getting on my nerves!
Back to the subject of the opera, however, it is probably an unusual choice, for many reasons. The musicologists, although they acknowledge it as being the last opera seria, do not praise the work much. In their claim, the composer had greater moments in his short life. Also, it is one of those typically “enlightened” operas that predetermine the outcome of the plot in the title – that might make people less willing to see it, since they know what happens in the end, before the opera has even begun. And then there is the obvious historical discrepancy between the title role and the original. I am a huge fan of the underdogs, though, and I root strongly for this one (and the underdog that’s in it as well). Oh, and I believe that the opera should have a different title too, but later on that subject. In case you have not understood what the subject matter is, here comes the revelation: Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito (translated in plain English as Titus clemency).


Ok, so Mozart’s ultimate (or penultimate opera, there is some disagreement as to whether this or The Magic Flute is really the last opera he composed – although, if one accepts the fact that The Magic Flute is actually a Singspiel the problem is automatically solved; but who am I to argue with the musicologists?!) work was a commission for a royal wedding, which pretty much explains why there is an enlightened emperor and a seemingly happy ending to it. But there is SOOOOO much more to this opera than that!
Let’s start with the really obvious thing: the title. In it you have the word “clemency” and the name “Tito”. So, even if you have absolutely no idea about who this Tito guy is, you know that he is bound to be clement or more eloquently put, merciful. What the title does not reveal is to whom or what this clemency is extended and why – which is the reason you have to watch the opera.
Moving on to the plot: If your roman history is slightly up to date, you will be disappointed to find out that this particular Tito, although based on the historical Roman emperor Tito, has absolutely nothing in common with his namesake. The explanation to this terrible digression is extremely simple: Metastasio’s libretto (which was a huge hit apparently and a number of others used it as well, but obviously Mozart’s version is the best) was composed during a period when the past was glorified, even if it did not deserve such glorification, for the edification of the aristocratic society and its subtle education through the art. It was a “win win” situation (unless the target group didn’t get the message of course, in which case it was a “win lose” situation). Back to the plot: Said emperor has a very good friend, who goes by the name of Sesto. He has fallen victim to the treacherous love of Vitellia, a Roman princess, who is power-hungry and was once in love with Tito too. Obviously, he scorned her and chose a Jewish princess for a while. But because the Romans would not have taken well to a Jewish princess as their emperor’s wife, Tito sends Berenice away and decides to marry Servilia instead, who is Sesto’s sister. Servilia however is in love with Annio, Sesto’s best friend and a confidant to the emperor as well. Now, you are free to guess as to who betrays Tito and why…
The obvious and most correct answer is Vitellia. She feels cheated out of her throne (apparently her father was the previous emperor and Tito overthrew him) and out of her love (I already mentioned her feeling for Tito). She does plot against Tito. But she does it in the most devious of ways that makes this particular female hero one of the most characteristic examples of femme fatales. She does not simply want to take the throne away from Tito, no, that would not be enough to quench her thirst for vengeance; instead she goes one step further and seduces Tito’s best friend and demands of him to overthrow the emperor. Sesto finds himself in the most uncomfortable position a man could possibly end up in. He is reluctant to organize the coup, but he burns for Vitellia; his desire for her is unstoppable. Their first scene together (opening the opera) is indicative of Vitellia’s control over him: she uses all her female charms to force him into action. Sesto succumbs. There is a momentary stay in their plans, when Annio informs them that Tito has sent Berenice away. Vitellia’s hopes of marrying Tito are rekindled, Annio asks Sesto’s help to demand Servilia’s hand in marriage from Tito, not knowing that Tito plans on marrying Servilia himself. The two friends find out together and it is Annio who breaks the news to his beloved. She is so desperate, that she goes to Tito and openly declares her love for Annio. To this revelation Tito is overjoyed and releases her of any obligations towards him. This sub-plot then is concluded and left aside. Vitellia, however, has learned that Tito plans on marrying Servilia and forces Sesto into action. Just as he runs off to gather his co-conspirators, Publio (Tito’s advisor) and Annio inform her that Tito has chosen her to be his wife. All hell breaks loose, of course and a desperate Vitellia goes off in search of Sesto, hoping to stop him. Too late. Sesto and his hired hands have set the Capitol on fire and Sesto stabs a man he mistakes for the emperor. Rome burns – accompanied by some magnificent music and the first act ends there.  
You can see where this is going, right? Sesto swears to Vitellia that he will keep her out of this, Annio wants him to ask for Tito’s forgiveness, the guy Sesto stabs does not die, but instead lives to tell the tale (which obviously makes things for Sesto a lot more difficult), Tito is torn between his love for his friend and his position as emperor, Vitellia is tormented by guilt; I could go on all day! What happens, finally, is what the title has already hinted at: Tito proves himself merciful to all who conspired against him (Vitellia admits her crime too) and the Romans can sing a lovely chorus in praise of their enlightened emperor who is so generous. So, “Ende gut, alles gut” as my German friends would say? Far from it.
While the opera conforms seemingly to the opera seria rule of the “lieto fine”, this ending is most certainly not happy. Tito forgives, but he does not forget; just as everybody else does not – and will not. There is no way in hell that Vitellia can marry Tito now and her relationship with Sesto has been damaged beyond repair. Some stage directors choose to have Sesto pair off with Vitellia in the end, but that, in my humble opinion, is a terrible faux pas. The ideal scenario for Sesto would be to self-exile himself somewhere far away! The only happy ending (which is entirely forgotten) is Annio and Servilia’s relationship. But nobody really cares about them, right? (Although, they do sing a crushingly beautiful duet in the first act, which always makes me tear up!)
Now, here’s the thing: this opera should not be called “La clemenza di Tito”. It should be called “Die Leiden des Sesto” (“The Sorrows of Sesto”). Or simply “Sesto”. Because, let’s face it people, the real hero here is Sesto. Everybody wants something from him. Vitellia wants revenge (and his body occasionally). Annio wants Servilia’s hand in marriage. Tito wants Sesto to be more than he actually is, namely a servant in the broad sense, not the “Dinner is served, your magnificence” sense. And what does Sesto want? Vitellia and to be loyal to his emperor. This is why this conflict of interests plays out so magnificently well. Sesto is the quintessentially romantic guy, the knight in shining armor, the true and loyal companion; in short, he is a transcendent character. It is his small attachment to bodily charms and attractions that make him go rogue. But he constantly doubts himself, is constantly trying to back out of this situation, constantly self-punishing (after the deed is done) himself. And while a part of him is grateful when Tito pardons him and doesn’t send him to the lions, another part knows that he will never manage to extinguish this stigma of the traitor that he has brought upon himself. The question Sesto makes us pose is: Are we supposed to follow our lovers blindly into everything they request of us or are we to remain faithful to a friend (who might also be in a powerful position, thus making matters more serious)?
There is no answer to this question and for good reason. Sesto’s dilemma is constructed in a manner to exemplify the emperor’s magnificence. In any other situation, the traitor would have been executed, no questions asked. But this particular Tito, because he has to function as a role model for a future monarch, is guided into this situation, in order to portray this enlightened government. If only things could be like that in real life… Alas, there are no enlightened rulers these days – and certainly no men like Sesto either.
On a more cheerful note, there is the music. I cannot begin to understand why the musicologists scorn this piece. Is it so obvious to their ears? Just because it makes no innovations, they have to condemn it as a moderate success? If I am asked why this particular Mozartian opera tops every other Mozartian opera, I simply answer: because the music is sublime. It is! From the very first note of the overture, to the very last note of the septet and chorus that closes the work, no emotion is left wanting. It soars into inexplicable heights and dives into heart wrenching abysses. It is sweet, loving, violent, possessive, passionate, dignified, terrible, descriptive, painful. This opera is one of the few examples of perfect words-set-to-music. Mozart understands the language deeply, he grasps the greatness of his characters and manages to make them relatable. This opera is the most fitting end of opera seria in any given context. Period.
On a final note to my favorite staging. I adore the production listed in the video below. I understand that many do not like it – for various reasons. But so far (and I have seen quite a few stagings of this opera, so I can speak from experience), this is the version that stays truest to the characters themselves and does not make caricatures of them. Oh, and, of course, this production includes the one and only Vesselina Kasarova as Sesto and the truly magnificent Dorothea Röschmann as Vitellia – they both nail their parts… So, enjoy and remember: there is no such thing as a perfect government!