Τετάρτη, 31 Ιουλίου 2013

T-7: Olympian Love Games and Metamorphoses – Cavalli’s tribute to ancient Greek myth

“Summertime… and the living is easy…” Gershwin did not compose that piece having me in mind, unfortunately! I can only wish that my summertime was easy. For a second year I am depraved of holidays; I have to organize my departure for the coming autumn; I have to juggle various issues at work, which become more surreal every day. At least, the relative peace and quiet that we have had for the past weeks is a small compensation to the fact that I cannot be enjoying cold mojitos on the beach. And it is precisely this peace that brings me back to the list. I will admit that I am very much out of practice. The words come out with extreme force lately, but that is the result of the burnout I am suffering from. Anyway, you didn’t come here to listen to me complaining, you came to be entertained and I promise you, I will do my best to accommodate even the toughest among you!
Moving – extremely slowly, I’ll admit – towards the top of the list, I realized that there is a lot of baroque opera in it; which would probably mean that I would have to change the title of the list to “My Top 10 baroque operas”, but I have already written about two (!) 19th century pieces, so that somewhat compensates for the lack of modernity in the list. And I can only promise that further down we will come across some later works. This being said, my number 7 is, surprise-surprise, from the baroque period…


Among the students that Claudio Monteverdi had, was one guy named Francesco Cavalli. His surname creates some rather funny associations these days, what with Roberto Cavalli being a famous fashion designer. I know not whether the two are distant relatives, but if they are, I am not entirely convinced that the original Cavalli would disprove of Roberto. This assumption is based solely on Cavalli’s music and not any particular information from the composers’ life. Cavalli (Francesco, not the other one), is, without a doubt, Monteverdi’s most famous student today. And rightly so. His music is vibrant, at times pompous, exuberant, yet also deep and profound; I would go as far as calling it “witty” in the English 18th century meaning of the word. If Monteverdi – in his three surviving operas – presents a sincere and very well thought out version of mankind, Cavalli takes his master’s lessons to a new height, by perfectly balancing comedy and drama in one, never forgetting that he is still composing for a rather eclectic audience back in his day.
His opera “La Calisto” (I will stick with this spelling of the name throughout, and not use the “Callisto” version of the name, which however is closer to Greek original orthography, since the name essentially means “the most beautiful”) is the perfect example – and it happens to be one of my favorites too. Back then, when it first premiered, it was not well received. It ran for a very short time, landing an unfortunate spot in the list of genius compositions that were well ahead of their times. Thankfully, this brilliant piece has been rediscovered and brought to life once again.
The plot is, not surprisingly, rather packed and the number of people appearing on stage is that of 13! Quite an accomplishment! As is the norm, the plot is also inspired by a number of ancient Greek myths – with no twist. The way they myths are, is the way they are portrayed in the opera. The librettist, Giovanni Faustini, did not make any huge alterations to his original material, taken from Ovid. He simply used what already existed and added some comic relief in the secondary characters, as is tradition.
Essentially the beginning of the story makes reference to the devastating effects of Phaethon’s ride with the Valkyries… uhm, no, wrong mythology, it was the Chariot of the Sun he used, not Grane. Well, Phaethon has scorched the Earth with his inability to control the flaming chariot and Jove, accompanied by Mercurio, pays a visit to the troubled lands to bring life back to the joint. Of course, where Jove goes, trouble in the form of a love affair is soon to follow; and obviously that is the case here as well. Jove falls head over heels for Calisto, the daughter of Lycaon, that wretched king who served Jove his own son and was turned into a wolf to pay for it… Oh, isn’t Greek mythology just so uplifting and fun? Anyway, Calisto is a virgin (…) and she is an ardent follower of Diana, daughter of Jove and goddess of the hunt. Just how ardent a follower she is, becomes obvious to the audience very soon. Since Calisto does not want to part with her virginity, not even for the Father of the Gods, Jove necessarily turns to deceit and comes up with one, maybe even his best ever, disguise that results in a number of troubles. Jove assumes the appearance of his own daughter to seduce his object of desire and since there is nothing wrong with making out with your head goddess, Calisto succumbs (shouldn’t there be a law that forbids Jove to take up the forms of his own children? Never mind!) It is unclear how much of Diana’s appearance Jove truly takes, because Calisto ends up pregnant… Which begs the question of how in the name of Hades did Jove manage to do something like that, if there was no penetration involved!? Don’t you just love that? Of course, once the real Diana shows up and Calisto starts talking of their kisses and embraces and the gods know what else, the real Diana realizes that her follower has broken her [hymen]oath and sends her packing. Which, by the way, is a rather hypocritical reaction on her part, because she too is secretly in love with a mortal and should, in theory, understand her subjects’ predicament – at least she should have given it a little bit more thought! I mean, why would Calisto act like that, if there was no reason? Ah, well, it’s opera and clearly Diana does not care much that there is an impostor running around, impersonating her. Well, she should, because her little secret love affair is revealed that way to her daddy, who of course doesn’t care much, because he is who he is. Back to the plot then, Diana is caught in a desperate fight with her own emotions, because it is rather obvious she is in love with the shepherd Endymione. But she has to remain chaste, otherwise why send Calisto away if she is to have sex? At some point, of course, Giunone (Hera) has to appear as well, chasing her unfaithful husband. And in the end, the Queen of the Gods gets her way. Calisto is turned into a bear (eventually so is her son, but that is not significant here). Jove, who clearly doesn’t really care as to what happens to his mistresses after he has had his share with them, simply rectifies the fallen human by promising her a radiant position in the stars – and lo and behold, Ursa Major is born on the night sky! A lovely way to immortalize someone and at the same time a constant reminder to Giunone of her husbands’ infidelity. As for Diana and Endymione, after the latter is kidnapped by some ancient Greek lowlife that plays a secondary role in the opera, Diana rescues him and they mutually agree that their relationship needs to remain platonic, therefore Diana places him in an eternal sleep on a rock up in the mountains, so that every night, when making her rounds as the Moon, she can observe and kiss him, without ever turning the thing into something carnal.
That’s just about that for this particular opera. Sex, sex and only sex seems to be the subject matter. But, it is being served with such splendor and passion, that one can only sit back and enjoy. Also, this opera includes a number of issues that would reappear in the distant future, e. g. gender roles and associations in society and the importance of sex in relations, to name just a few.
The myth of Calisto, I would argue, is probably the first transgender myth in the western world [theoretically speaking, I suppose that researchers have already pointed something like this out, but I am not aware of any of those studies, so if anyone knows something, do let me know please!]. Granted, the homosexuality portrayed here is extremely complicated, since it is a male disguising himself as a female, but remains in essence a male, so questions of heterosexuality and homosexuality clearly arise. But this is also the quintessential matter that brings both comedy and drama to the stage and opens the way for the likes of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal to do exactly the same some 4 centuries later! Also, immediately after revealing his true nature to Calisto (not the way he does with Semele, though), Jove is not portrayed as wanting more of her. The way he gives up to his wife, is the key to understanding this particular god. It is embarrassing for him to be seen as Diana of course, but once the disguise has served its purpose, the right order of things can finally return and Calisto has to pay for her beauty.
Another question arises then as well: Calisto is worshipping Diana – but how much of that worship changes into love, driven by sexual passion, after her encounter with Jove/Diana? And in the end, is she in love with Jove or are her emotions conflicted? There is no satisfactory answer to either question, in my opinion, but that is the beauty of it. Apparently, back in the ancient times, it was simply an honor to get laid by one of the gods, so what happened after, didn’t really matter. Also, what is extremely interesting is, how it is always the Gods at fault and never the mortals! It is Zeus who always finds a way to cheat on his wife and what happens to the – mostly married – victims of his passion is known to us very well. Yes, they might suffer for a while, but in the end, being the lover of a god, has its upside as well. For Calisto this meant a place in heaven, literally!
So, is this a comic opera? Yes and no. There are three parallel plots that have various degree of comedy in them and those intertwine throughout the opera. The first is the love affair between Calisto and Jove; the second between Diana and Endymione and the third the courtship of Linfea with said lowlife (Satirino, Pane and Sylvano). The names in parenthesis are the Three Stooges of the play and Linfea a spinster, who is a reluctant follower of Diana, in desperate need of base and filthy sex. The comedy that arises from the interactions of those four characters is legendary, because Linfea is conflicted as well about what it is she truly wants. The fact that she gives in at the end, simply verifies that sex rules! Those four are there to make the audience laugh, period. But the other two stories, the major ones, are a different thing altogether.
Jove’s affair with Calisto begins as something funny. Calisto’s rebuttals to Jove’s advances are comic. And Calisto’s approach to the real Diana also cause laughter; but up to a point. Because once Calisto is exiled from Diana’s group of followers and left alone, the scene changes into something very dramatic. This is a woman who, in the past, has lost her family (Lycaon and co.), then loses her chosen family through deceit, her lover and her child, all in one moment of weakness! Jove’s decision to render her immortal through the stars is a small compensation for all of that. And it does not really speak for a lieto fine.
As far as Diana’s affair with Endymione goes, well, that is completely sad, from beginning to end. The audience knows that the goddess cannot change who she is, not even for her one true love. She is, by Nature, a protector of virginity and a huntress; two roles that are rather conflicting in themselves. Diana’s almost hatred for men is notorious, but even she cannot hate every man. However, she cannot degrade herself by breaking her own code. The solution of the eternal sleep then is the only logical one she can choose: at the same time, this solution gives her the opportunity to be with her lover until the Twilight of the Gods – famously brought to them by either Xena, the Warrior Princess or Richard Wagner, take your pick!
In the end, what makes this opera so incredibly appealing to me, apart from the grand plot, is Cavalli’s music. It is his ability to portray both humor and pain in the same breath and his incredible sense of theatricality. His recitatives really move the action forward and their rhythm is also why the comic effects are so successful. Timing is everything and he masters it completely. As for the dramatic moments, they are never over the top; quite the contrary, they are served with sincerity and real affection towards the characters, an accomplishment very few composers of his time can claim any right to. It is not surprising to me that this opera was not well received back then. Both the libretto and the music are only wearing the mask of their times; but underneath it they break the boundaries of what was accepted back then in subtle ways, making it hard for his contemporaries to grasp the magnificence of this piece.

A quick note, right before I leave you and that has to do with staging the opera. I have seen three times (all within a year) the most splendid production of this opera in Munich. It was a production by David Alden, that is being picked up this season again and I can only tell you that I will be there, yet again, to witness it! Hopefully, the Bavarian State Opera will either live stream it for the rest of the world or decide to make a DVD of it, because it is a truly witty production that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, successfully combining the comedy with the drama, while serving at the same time the music and the plot. High theater at its very best, which is a rarity these days…  

Τετάρτη, 12 Ιουνίου 2013

Ελληνικός Ραδιοτηλεοπτικός Τάφος*

For months now I have suffered from a serious case of writer’s block for various reasons. And while I know exactly what I want to write about – mainly continue the list – I cannot put myself to doing it. The words simply do not flow as they used to and that frustrates me, like I cannot begin to describe how much. Also, it has been a very long time since I last expressed any public view whatsoever regarding the state Greece is in and most particularly culture and education – the two segments of civilization that are of importance to me. And while my writing is still stifled and the words refuse to reveal themselves to me obstinately, today I cannot remain silent; for a crime has been committed and despite the fact that my voice is hardly ever heard (or even agreed with for that matter), my sense of justice has taken over the best of me and it forces my hand. What will come of it, I do not know. [I might lose my job, but that is of no importance, considering that my current position will be over in less than two months time, so it is not such a huge deal at the moment.]
I spoke of a crime and obviously I must name it (for my non-Greek readers, that is, because the Greek readers already know from the title what I will be writing about). Yesterday afternoon – May 11th, 2013 – the Greek government, applying a unique measure that has absolutely nothing to do with Democracy and in order to fulfill its obligations towards our European lenders, announced that the National Radio and Television Broadcasting Service of Greece (EPT), a stately funded institution (we, the people also pay for it a rather small fee for its service), was to be shut down. Just like that and – what is even more shocking – on the very same day the announcement was made. Which meant, that by the end of the day the radio stations and television channels, as well as any other institution associated with EPT, would cease its operations, whatever they may have been!
For my non-Greek readers, I will try to explain in as quick a manner as possible what EPT was (past tense). EPT was the National Broadcasting Service that from the radio, eventually expanded over to the television, internet and social media functions of Information, News, Culture and Education. It consisted of a number of radio stations all over Greece, each dedicated to a different kind of either news or culture; three state wide broadcast television channels (ET1, NET and ET3) with different objectives and goals in their programming; a magazine; a webpage; the obvious social network connections; an orchestra; a choir; technicians to keep everything in working order and probably a gazillion of other things as well, which I am unaware of. In total, those parts amounted to 2.656 individuals – from reporters to musicians to technicians to the cleaning staff – who as of today are essentially, unemployed.
I would love to go on about the way they ended up on the streets – namely through the personal choice of our Prime Minister, who, in order to please our European lenders and achieve the set goal of firing some 2.000 people from the public sector by the end of June had to do something, otherwise we wouldn’t get the loan… But I will not, because I refuse to meddle with politics, even by criticizing such an abomination of a choice. And I refuse to do so, because, despite my little life experience I know that much: in today’s world, people are only viewed as numbers and those numbers need to procure money for the rich; when they stop doing so they need to be laid off. At least, that is the very blunt and least detailed explanation. But, please, couldn’t they have come up with a better idea?
I am not going to say that everybody in Greece in general and in EPT in particular is a saint. It would be the biggest lie in the world! I live here, I have the distinct ………………… [deliberately left like that, in case you were wondering] of working in the public sector, I have seen things that will make your hair jump and I know that there are a lot of worthless people in important positions that simply cannot be moved, because they know somebody in an even higher place. But shutting down the National Broadcasting Service is a crime. No matter what. And it is not only a crime because 2.656 people and their families are laid off, no. I am convinced that not everybody in there was worth it – but that amount of people must have been small, hell, even if only half of those 2.656 people were worth it, they at least should have been allowed to stay. The way I hear, currently Greece is the only nation on the planet that does not have a National Broadcasting Service. Fabulous! Just great! We are even worse than North Korea! The crime of shutting down a news service goes way further.
Firstly, it is a distinct violation of the right to free speech which every individual has from day one. You shut down the National Broadcasting Service and all you have left are the private channels, each serving a different master and with different obligations to different political and financial parties. Let’s make one thing clear: I am not saying that EPT was unbiased or that at no time in the past, news were influenced by the governing body. But, believe me, after seeing the crap the other news channels feed us every single day, the little amount of government propaganda EPT did was harmless. At least there you knew who they served and why.
Secondly, EPT has always held up some standards regarding its programming – and here I am going to start reminiscing incessantly. When I was a kid (not so long ago, mind you) I literally grew up watching the children’s program of the 90’s which consisted of “Little House in the Prairie” (loved it and it made me want to read the books, which I did when I became a teen), “Carousel” (a Brazilian children soap opera that took place in a school that had the greatest teacher of them all, Ms. Jimena, who was not only beautiful, but extremely kind – I know that every child my age back then wished to have her as their teacher), “The Chronicles of Narnia” (the four installations made by the BBC of four of the seven books – the doll Aslan is a joke by today’s standards, but for someone who adored the books that series was incredible; I have the DVD’s and occasionally still watch them), “The Teacher” (an exceptional French series, that I would kill to see again, because it is probably the best series ever made, period!), an installation of the “Adventure” series by Enid Blyton (I think it was the “Adventure” series, but I am not very sure any more) which was fun and enjoyable and did actually make the books come to life (huge fan of Blyton’s books, by the way – nowadays children do not even know who she was), and not to mention the Greek productions for children and adults made back then that unfortunately will not resonate with my non-Greek readers and therefore I refrain from mentioning them. I learned great lessons back then through all those programs and the best thing about them was I actually watched them together with my parents, because even they found them interesting and qualitative.
Then, of course, there were the documentaries: EPT had always a huge arsenal of extremely interesting documentaries to present, from “Lonely Planet” to fictionalized versions of the life of Dostoyevsky and what have you. Also, they produced themselves extremely interesting documentaries about all kinds of things, many of which have received numerous international awards (the documentary series “Exantas” is one example). By the way, one of the last documentaries I saw some months ago was a report on “El Sistema”, brilliantly done and executed by our Greek reporters.
And then, there was the music. I watched my first opera on the established Sunday matinee program of ET3, which was then moved to the afternoon, to a more appropriate time slot. They broadcasted concerts of classical music from all over the world, not only through the television, but also through their radio channels, most importantly – for classical music – the 3rd. That radio channel was on non-stop in our house every single day; in fact, it was the only radio station we ever listened to with undying devotion!
Also, the sports. I am a huge sports fan – I do not enjoy doing them myself, but I love watching them. Football, basketball, tennis, water sports, athletics and figure skating… I still remember the final of the 2004 Euro Championships where Greece upset Portugal and won the Cup – it was on NET. Every single basketball event – from European Championships to the World Championships – where Greece always in the past years has a team to speak of was shown there. Every May it was Rolland Garros time! Water sports and athletics; the Olympic Games obviously! And figure skating… I will never forget the numerous times I cried watching exceptional artists dance on the ice in competitions, bringing a moment of beauty in our tormented everyday lives.  
Finally the nations’ archives. It is incredible once you realize that right now, Greece’s modern day history of the past century is in danger. EPT has one of the most concise and complete audiovisual archives in the country. Not only that, but during the past years, an effort was made to digitize everything and spread it – for free – to the public via the Internet. I have seen old shows there, shows from before I was born. I learned about people I was interested in through old documentaries. I explored those archives whenever I had the chance and the time and they were marvelous! If anyone wants to destroy our nation that is the way to do it: destroy the archives. Right now, they – whoever “they” are – have total access and control over them. That archive contains Greece’s cultural heritage of the 20th century and we are about to lose it. The cultural implications of such a loss are magnanimous, to say the least and impossible to calculate at this moment. Should it happen, it will be a crime against humanity and those responsible for it, should face trial.
I am so overwhelmed by all these happenings, that I am uncertain whether I have said enough. Probably not. And also, probably, my entry is not as powerful as I would like it to be, nor does it make its’ point. But, what I want to stress out is this: despite the fact that often I was irritated by a lot of things that had to do with EPT – from the wrong announcement of a music piece on the radio, to the complete overhaul (without any warning) of their program when I really needed it to be a different way, to the censored kiss from “Deep Space 9” in the year 2008 (I think) – I appreciated its existence in my life. And I never could have imagined a life without it. Well, I’m living that life right now – and so are 10 million others just like me…
How is this going to play out? Mind you, the government has already announced a new form of EPT coming to existence, sometime in the future. But I already dislike the name of it, so I probably won’t care much about it. And even if they restore the old EPT to the way it was yesterday, with all its problems and downsides, it wouldn’t be the same. Not only that, but they would make themselves even greater fools than they already are. Well, I never voted for anyone in the current parliament, nor am I ever going to, but it is rather disturbing to see yourself represented by such idiots to the world. No wonder everybody thinks Greeks are stupid and lame. Still, I remain an optimist and pray that the world in general will come to its senses and our lives will get better. Maybe. One day.

*Greek Radio-television Tomb

Τετάρτη, 15 Μαΐου 2013

Antonio Vivaldi concert in Thessaloniki

The Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra has invited the great Romina Basso for one unique concert, dedicated to Antonio Vivaldi! The concert takes place on Friday 17th May 2013 at 21.00, at the Concert Hall of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. The program includes concertos for strings and selected arias from important operas of the great baroque master! The Orchestra is conducted from the harpsichord by Markellos Chrysikopoulos, while the T.S.S.O.'s concert master Simos Papanas is leading the strings.

Τρίτη, 5 Μαρτίου 2013

T-8: Handel’s second take on Ariosto or “Cry, baby, cry!”

Recently (and happy belated New Year all around, by the way!), I was asked by a conductor – who shall remain anonymous, for his own discretion – what it was that appealed to me so much about baroque opera. And I explained that thanks to baroque opera and its Affektenlehre, I had a life-changing experience; a revelation, if you want to call it that. And here, finally, after many many months of silence, I will attempt to describe the opera that caused this. Of course, one might ask: “Why, on Earth, is a life-changing experience on spot number 8, rather than number 1?” Well, if the answer to that question isn’t obvious… let me make it obvious: Clearly, an even stronger experience lies in the first spots of the list! And let me make yet another warning, before we move on to the actual spoilers: Though I am a mediocre writer, not a genius, but at least I know my way around the written word, and can write about pretty much anything, when it comes to describing an extremely personal experience that involves a lot of emotions, the words simply fail me. That is probably what will happen in this case as well, so, I would beg of you, dear reader, to be less criticizing about this entry, than of any other.


In case the title of the entry isn’t making it clear to everyone about which opera I am talking about, here it comes: it’s Ariodante! For some reason, the first five years of the 1730’s for Handel, drew inspiration from Ariosto’s brilliant epic “L’ Orlando Furioso”. Within three years he composed three operas based on episodes from that poem, with his first one – “Orlando” – being a flop, because the composer decided to stretch the boundaries of opera seria and music to the extremes, thus alienating his audience and his company! Obviously, “Orlando” is considered a groundbreaking composition by today’s musicologists… But, and even though I have seen a pretty awesome production of this particular opera, “Orlando” is not my concern here. In my mind it falls under the category of light entertainment, despite its’ mad scene and sci-fi themes.   
Let me start by summarizing the plot in a simple and concise way: Act 1 plays out in the castle of the King of Scotland. His daughter, Ginevra, is courted by the Duke of Albany, Polinesso, a real badass and a noble knight, Ariodante. Needless to say, Ginevra despises the first one and is in love with the second. Thankfully, Ariodante reciprocates the feeling and because the King is also happy with this union, preparations are being made to marry the happy couple. Of course, Polinesso has other plans, and he uses the blind love of lady-in-waiting Dalinda, to make sure Ariodante gets out of the way. This unhappy woman is on her turn being courted by Lurcanio, Ariodante’s brother. Just as his sibling, Lurcanio is honorable and noble and he too truly loves Dalinda, but, as is the case, she sends him packing… Anyway, Act 1 concludes with dance and relatively happy music, as the lovers prepare for the wedding that is to take place on the next day. Act 2 then begins outside a secret passage to Ginevra’s apartment, where Ariodante is waiting, unable to sleep. At this point Polinesso comes and mocks him, telling him that Ginevra is only pretending to love him and that, in truth, she prefers the Duke. Ariodante doesn’t believe him, but when the Duke enters the Princesses’ apartment and is welcomed with… warm feelings, the world shatters around Ariodante. Lurcanio also chances by this scene – which begs the question of how secret this passage to Ginevra’s apartment truly is – and tries to convince his brother not to commit suicide. He takes the latter’s sword away and leaves him alone in his desperation – which is yet another extremely clever thing to do, right? Ariodante disappears into the night, with thoughts of suicide still circling in his head. The next morning arrives and the news of Ariodante’s death reach the King of Scotland. He fears for his daughter’s wellbeing, but Lurcanio arrives and accuses Ginevra of infidelity, thus explaining the sudden urge of Ariodante to leave the country and perish at sea. Again, how it is possible to find a ship in the middle of the night ready to disembark, get on it, then have witnesses to the ship’s destruction in a storm, eludes me, but that is opera seria for you! Anyway, the King is flabbergasted by this accusation, but unfortunately he has to uphold the law and therefore places Ginevra under arrest, without explaining exactly why he is doing this. Ginevra, is of course innocent and understands nothing. She only knows that Ariodante is dead and she is being accused of a crime she didn’t commit, because – and here comes the clue – the “Ginevra” Ariodante thought he saw the previous night, was in fact Dalinda, dressed up as Ginevra. The act closes with Ginevra having nightmares. The third Act then begins by the seashore, where – surprise, surprise – the tormented hero is washed out by the sea, because not even the gods are willing to let Ariodante perish. He does demand an explanation from them, but they remain mysteriously silent; only dropping Dalinda in his path, who is being chased by two bad guys, intent on killing her. They obviously work for the Duke. Ariodante sends them packing, Dalinda is thankful and reveals everything and a rejoicing Ariodante takes the unhappy woman with him and they go to the palace. There, Polinesso appears as Ginevra’s champion against Lurcanio, hoping thus to win both the woman and the throne – not necessarily in that order. Again however, since Polinesso is in the wrong, Lurcanio subdues him, at which point a mysterious knight in shining armor appears wanting to defend Ginevra’s honor as well. But, Polinesso does the right thing in the end and just before he draws his last breath manages to confess the whole plot to the King’s confidante. The mysterious knight is none other than Ariodante – where he got the armor I do not know, because he wasn’t wearing it when he emerged from the sea! Happily the King declares his daughter innocent and leaves with Ariodante to the dungeons to free her. Lurcanio and Dalinda linger a while behind and in their sweet final scene we see that there is hope for them yet. Ariodante is reunited with Ginevra, their torments are past and all happily sing and dance of the joys of chaste and honorable love that defeats all evil! Happy endings all around us!       
Well, that was that. The very simple plot, that is so see-through we know from the very first bar what is to happen. Good guy vs. bad guy; good guy wins and marries the trophy wife. End of story. So, what’s so special about this particular rendition of the all-to-familiar tale? Obviously, the music. It has a very dark and highly ironic character and the drama and pain of every hero is described magnificently through every aria. From Ginevra’s very first arioso, to Lurcanio’s and Dalinda’s final duet, no character is left undefined. And while one could even compartmentalize the heroes according to their music – Ariodante, Lurcanio, Ginevra and the King being the righteous ones, as opposed to Polinesso and Dalinda representing deceit – every individual has his own voice. The characterization is simply fantastic, with both the libretto and the music working towards a common goal: representing human passions in the most realistic of ways (no, it is not verismo yet!).
Still, even that, some might argue, has been achieved in a much better way by other composers. So, again, what is it that makes this opera so important to me? Apart from the fact that all art is a totally subjective kind of thing, it is the main protagonist of this particular story that is so very intriguing. Obviously he is the dream guy even I would accept to marry… He is honorable, valorous, truthful and a courteous lover. He is not interested in power and is reluctant to accept it – which makes him all the better. And – in my dreams of course – he is also extremely good looking! * Side note to self: Though many counter-tenors have sung this part, curiously, it is the mezzos that actually bring it to life for me. And when those mezzos have the looks of a Vesselina Kasarova or a Joyce DiDonato… well… I’d flip for them for sure! * And then, there is this tiny (ehem) little (ehem ehem) aria he sings at the beginning of act 2, that simply blows my mind away every single time I hear it.
In order to explain this feeling, I must make a digression. Before my experience with Ariodante in Munich, I had seen a number of operas since my childhood – even some one might consider slightly odd for a kid, like Lucia di Lammermoor (twice) or The Turn of the Screw. And I loved every crazy part of it – especially the death scenes. I mean, what can be more hilarious than the protagonist being stabbed to death and singing and singing and singing, without dying and then, eventually, drawing a last breath. Hilarious! No matter the music! So, this (mis)conception of mine made it impossible for me to feel during the opera. I simply expected the death scene, in order to delight in its absurdity. I never ever expected to be blown away by an opera, to be moved to tears by a hero, simply because I only saw the (tragi)comedy in the drama.
Enter Ariodante and his “Scherza infida”. That was that. The most simple of arias – because it is simple in every way – turned my whole world upside down. The simplicity of the orchestration, the numb melody on the bassoon (a brilliant choice by Handel by the way), the breath like accompaniment on the strings throughout the first section, the dynamic, elegiac tone of the second section, the – usually – very slow performance rhythm the conductors choose for it; all these things amass to an unexpected explosion of emotions in the attentive and open listeners’ soul. Add to that the truly sublime performance of Ann Murray that night and you can only begin to understand what I went through for fifteen minutes! I was a wreck, literally, when she finished. I couldn’t move, I was crying and applauding at the same time, I wanted this to never end, I wanted to stay in that moment for ever. And Ariodante wasn’t even dying in that scene! Hell, no, he returned triumphant and victorious; but not before singing yet another gripping piece of music: the sublime “Numi! Lasciarmi vivere?” a violent and accusing arioso towards the unkind gods, who refuse to allow the hero to perish. In Ariodante’s case, of course, the gods know better… Just as the listener does. Tragic irony in its best form. Simply glorious.
So, yes, a life changing experience at the opera house it was (hm, I should refrain from playing “Angry Birds: Star Wars” so often, I’m channeling Master Yoda…) An experience which, apart from opening my eyes to a whole new world and my ears to the magical world of baroque opera altogether, has had the added effect that I cannot go to the opera anymore and not cry. Even in comedies… I get crying at “La Traviata”, but crying at “Le nozze di Figaro” shouldn’t happen, right? Oh, well, I don’t care. And why should I? Opera is, after all, the greatest art form mankind has ever produced – and the goal is exactly that: to move people to tears and laughter, through the combination of music and word. There’s no shame in crying when something is so divinely said. And God knows Handel had mastered the trick of moving people to tears, whenever he felt like it…