Πέμπτη, 30 Ιανουαρίου 2014

T-5: Never ever invite the Statue to dinner.

Wow! Two posts in less than a month! That is quite the accomplishment, at least for me. This time there isn’t much to complain about. Actually, there is nothing to complain about! Incredible. Either I have been really content lately or nothing significant has taken place. Both explanations are fine with me. So, without any further ado, let’s talk about Statues, shall we?


Even if you are not at all familiar with the world of opera, chances are that you have seen Don Giovanni in some form, at some point in your life. Maybe not as Don Giovanni, but in his many other incarnations from books to the cinema – it is, together with Romeo and Juliet, probably the second most popular hero in our western tradition. The incorrigible libertine, the seductive Casanova, the mysterious Don Juan has been an obsession of both sexes; let’s be honest with each other: Men envy his many conquests and try to be like him and ladies do dream about him, even if they do not admit so to anyone… I could go on explaining why this particular character is so captivating, but I won’t.
Instead, I’ll jump straight to the point and start discussing (with myself) the operatic incarnation that W. A. Mozart created together with his buddy Lorenzo Da Ponte of this intriguing character. The premise of this opera is rather simple: said Don tries first to seduce Donna Anna à fails (?) à kills her father à tries to seduce Donna Elvira (his ex-wife) à runs away from her à tries to seduce Zerlina (a lovely maiden on her wedding night) à fails à tries to seduce Donna Elvira’s housemaid à fails à invites the Statue of Donna Anna’s father to dinner (!!!) à ends up in Hell. A number of characters are also involved in this lovely plot – namely Leporello, his servant, Don What’s-his-Name, Donna Anna’s fiancé and Masetto, Zerlina’s husband – and let us also keep in mind that the above plot happens during one night and one alone…
Let’s start with the discrepancies (I always wanted to do that): This is supposed to be the guy who has successfully seduced more than 1.000 ladies of all ages and statuses across Europe? Well, he sure does fail a lot during this fateful night… Also, if he kills Il Commendatore on that same night, how is it possible to invite his statue, which has already been erected at the cemetery? When did they inter the guy? There is a huge problem here, but we’ll go with it, because that is what makes the opera so great! Add to that the fact that the scenes in which he disguises himself as his servant are not at all convincing – I mean, wouldn’t Donna Elvira realize she is not with her husband, but his servant? It is rather curious.
There is also one really stupid character; that’s right, the Don What’s-his-Name (Ottavio. If I think about it, his name is a disgrace to another Octavian, but that is an entirely different blog entry! That was a spoiler for what lies ahead, by the way). Let’s see: if you compare him to Don Giovanni, he is weak. If you compare him to Masetto, he comes off as unmanly. If you compare him to the Commendatore, he really doesn’t strike you as the scary kind of guy. He hates violence, has no idea how to confront his own fears – least of all how to confront his fiancé’s fears – and he sings some really cheesy tunes. Truthfully, it is only those cheesy tunes that save this particular character. Thankfully, his is a minor role in the entire plot and so we can easily put him out of our minds and concentrate on more important stuff: the two ladies and the Statue!
First comes Donna Anna (although, since Don Giovanni was married to Donna Elvira, she should take precedence, but let’s follow the script here and not take things chronologically). It’s really strange, but to me, Donna Anna was always an elusive figure, that doesn’t really gain much substance. But there is also a certain ambiguity in her character. No one really knows – except for herself and the Don – what happened between the two of them that fateful night. Modern interpretations of the opera have even suggested that she invited the man herself and then, to uphold her honor, she cried “rape”. But what if she truly did invite him and then cry rape? She becomes automatically the perpetrator of her father’s murder. She is guilty of involuntary manslaughter! So, the act of pleasure seeking ends up badly, severely damaging her and her future. The request then she makes of Don Ottavio to avenge her father is essentially her own attempt at salvation and forgiveness. Don Ottavio doesn’t carry out his oath, of course, because he is quite incapable of doing that. But, this is opera, so the punishment will come and it will be severe. Of course, one has to ask oneself why Don Giovanni should be punished, if we accept that Donna Anna invited him in the first place!? If she didn’t invite him and he truly wanted to rape her, then fine, he deserves the punishment, but let’s be honest – we all like the other idea more, right? [A truly devious mind might even argue that the murder of the father was planned by the daughter, because she was certain he would come to her defense… But we do not have devious minds around here, now, do we?]
Then comes the ex wife. There had to be an ex, of course. Now she is something entirely different! Here you have a woman with a mission! She is truly, madly, deeply in love with Don Giovanni and because she is so in love, she tries desperately to save him from himself. In the process she ends up saving Zerlina, but that is also part of the game. Donna Elvira is a magnificent creature, in my opinion. She is willing to sacrifice everything for an ungrateful husband. She ends up empty, obviously, and her only recourse would be to join a monastery, but she has great potential. It is the stupidity of man and Don Giovanni in particular that simply makes it impossible for her to be happy. Also, Donna Elvira is the only person in the whole plot, who actually foresees the unhappy end the Don will suffer in a splendid aria in the second act, where she describes with great accuracy the fires of Hell ascending. Donna Elvira is not mad – as many productions like to portray her. She is merely deceived by none other than the God of Love himself. She cannot be faulted for failing in her mission.
And finally comes the Statue. I love everything about the Statue, plain and simple. The Commendatore before his death is simply a man who wants to defend his daughter and his family’s honor. But after his death, he becomes so much more: He is Death incarnate, he is the right hand of Justice, he is the representative of Hell on Earth and he sings "Don Giovaaaani!" in the most sonorous bass line that was ever written. I never quite understood why he comes from Hell, maybe he doesn’t, but I always felt that he is not godsend. I could be wrong, but I have an argument to support my theory: it is in his constant pleading with Don Giovanni to request forgiveness, in his vain attempt to save the libertine from eternal damnation, that I see him as a soul trapped in those same flames that will devour the protagonist. For some strange reason, he wishes to spare his mortal enemy the agony he is suffering. All in vain, of course. The Don is a narcissist above all and the last thing that would cross his mind would be to ask for forgiveness. So they both end up in Hell, probably sharing a hot tub…
This all then is supposed to be a “dramma giocoso”, a happy drama! Mozart had a weird sense of humor, that much is well known and documented. But where is the joyfulness in the plot? By the end of it you have two dead people, a servant with no master (who instead of relishing the fact that he is free, decides to find a new master), an ex wife who will probably take up the habit, a failed relationship and most definitely a failed future marriage and the happy-go-lucky-newlywed peasant pair that really doesn’t care much about anything else other than pleasing their carnal desires. Happiness? Joy? Definitely not. Not even the illusion of them! Only Justice (?) for a man who was so self-conscious it killed him.
Of course, there is a “but”. This is Mozart! Divine, elegant, melodic, dramatic Mozart. Don Giovanni is not just about an intriguing character, it is about the music involved in it. Treatises upon treatises have been written about it; about how the protagonist never sings an actual aria, or about the ambiguous musical setting of almost every scene – there is metatext to be found in everything here! And there is excitement. I always get really edgy when the dinner scene begins. It is the frivolity of the wine song that is contrasted with the Statue’s ominous “Don Giovanni” exclamation that turns the tables literally. Or the really inspired ensemble scenes, where no voice is redundant. It is passionate music, with a touch of irony and even pain that was composed here. Was Mozart sympathizing with his libertine? Who knows? Fact is, this opera is not just an all time classic, but it is probably the greatest contribution to the myth of the Don Juan. And I am definitely loving this version the most. Which is why, when talking to Statues, I remain respectful and graceful and never ever invite them to dinners…


Πέμπτη, 2 Ιανουαρίου 2014

T-6: Unrequited Love, Duty and a suicidal Poet in the French version of Goethe

I suppose that by now those who follow this blog ardently must have realized that I am not really very good at keeping my New Year’s Resolutions, which is why for 2014 I made none to speak of. Considering that last year I promised myself I would at least finish the opera count-down, it saddens me to admit that I was unable to do so. Obviously, otherwise this would not be No. 6 on the list, but an entirely different entry altogether. It is for two reasons that this is so: Reason No. 1 is a significant lack of time on my part. I have begun an entirely new chapter in my life, away from everything familiar and the everyday struggles of getting used to a new lifestyle do drag on considerably. Reason No. 2 is a lack of an inspiring title. It has always been, to the chagrin of my teachers at school, a huge problem of mine that I cannot write anything – short or long – if the title doesn’t fit. Occasionally, and only because I am being pushed by deadlines, I deliver texts for the odd publication here and there. But, even though I know the operas on the list, I cannot continue with the count-down, when I don’t have a title. It is a terrible problem, but one I cannot control or overcome. Therefore, with an extremely heavy heart and an even worse title to begin with, I give you my first contribution to 2014 – and no, it is not an opera by Richard Strauss, despite it being a Richard Strauss year! (Finally, because all this Wagner-Verdi craze of 2013 was really getting on my nerves… Especially the Wagner part!)


A French opera based on a German novel authored by one of the most important authors of European history, can either be better than the book or worse. I am not particularly fond of the French in general, but I do grant them that they have some kick ass composers and they are pretty much the only reason why I would learn French, should I ever decide to learn another foreign language. Apart from French music however, I do not really want to have many dealings with France or its people – which is why I am probably going to end up either marrying a French guy, or having to live and work in France at some point in my life, just to prove me wrong, as is Life’s want…! Back to the opera, though, I am obviously talking about Jules Massenet and his version of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of young Werther” (now there’s a catchy title!)
The premise of the story is rather simple and easily explained: said “young Werther” is a poet/dreamer/nature lover/childish person who falls in love with kindhearted/duty bound/honorable/nurturing Charlotte, who marries Albert (no descriptive adjectives for him). Said “young Werther” commits suicide. End of story. By the way, this has got to be the shortest plot description I am ever going to make here! It most definitely is the shortest so far…
Ok, so now we know what happens. It doesn’t really sound appealing, right? I mean, you have an egotistical protagonist who commits suicide with Albert’s gun, just because he can’t have Charlotte. Charming! Well, it is not so simple. One of the musical arguments I have with my mother is about French opera. She claims that there are no real memorable melodies in it. Well, I beg to differ. And “Werther” is one of the many examples that affirm my opinion. There are a number of scenes that include some of the most beautiful and expressive melodies ever written. Yes, admittedly they are typically French, in that they are filled with pathos and melodrama and gravity and all the things that make French music different from Italian or German music. It doesn’t really flow, nor does it have a “beat”, but this pathetic style is in itself beautiful and strangely fits the characters of this particular work extremely well.
And that brings me to the second point that makes this opera interesting: the characters. Granted, the whole plot in the opera revolves around Werther and Charlotte, they have the most to sing and the entire last act is dominated by them. And granted, too, one might even argue that neither character undergoes a major change. Perhaps that is most true for Werther. His sole purpose in life is to woe Charlotte and be an artist. However, it is clear that the second part is rather unimportant to him from the moment he meets her. The tragedy in their case is a result of both Charlotte’s sense of duty and Werther’s weak character. This weakness is evident in the fact that he only fights for her when she is alone with him and never when Albert is present. He takes the easy way out. He asserts his power only in front of Charlotte and then immediately regrets doing so. Werther is no fighter. He doesn’t really know how to fight. In reality he is the typical egotist. And because he also is an artist, he needs someone to both inspire and commend him. Charlotte, in his mind, is that Muse he needs, but she turns out to be a dark one.
In truth, this opera is concentrated on Charlotte. She is the one that has to suffer for everything. Let us consider this for a moment: Indeed, the two of them would make a brilliant couple if Albert were not in the middle. Why? Because Werther, as an artist, is unable to care for himself and Charlotte is a successful housewife, taking on the role of the mother to her little siblings early on, with her mother’s passing. She would take care of the artist and be his inspiration at the same time. And it would please her too, because she is the kind of person that lives to serve others. But, there is the small hiccup called Albert and Charlotte’s oath to her dying mother that she would marry him. So, this idyllic idea cannot be realized. Charlotte does love Albert, but that love is not a carnal love; it is a love borne from duty. Werther is the wakeup call for her sexuality, but she cannot give in to that, because she feels bound by duty.
And then there is the final act. Up to that point the opera pretty much follows the events of the book by condensing them of course to the absolute essentials. It is this final act that really makes the opera better than the book however and the reason is this: in the book, Werther shoots himself with Albert’s gun and dies about a day later (on Christmas day) with Charlotte’s siblings all around him. The last thing he experiences is the touch of children’s lips on his face, which is according to his love of children and his own self – the child that is trapped inside a grown-ups body. But Charlotte is not present in the scene, so the romance is not really concluded. The opera takes a different approach to that and for the better: Werther shoots himself with Albert’s gun again on Christmas day, but this time Charlotte finds him and the two of them spend some truly tragic moments together, with sublime music to make things even worse. And there is also the outrageous request that Werther makes of Charlotte, which is the absolute crowning of his egotism and proves once again that Charlotte is a victim of her own sense of duty: he asks that she visit his grave every single day, for the rest of her life, to weep for him and remember him and their unrequited love. Of course we all know that Charlotte is going to do that, driving herself mad with guilt probably and most definitely ruining her marriage with Albert. So, in the opera’s end, Werther gets what he wants only he is not there to live it!
I cannot exactly explain why this particular opera makes it into my Top 10. Perhaps it was the truly emotional performances of Vesselina Kasarova in Munich that make it so special to me. I saw the production with her three times and each time I was moved to the core by it. It is a brilliant production (thank God the production has been recorded, not in Munich unfortunately and not with Kasarova, but still it is worth it). It is an extremely delicate staging, with constant references to Goethe’s text as well scribbled all over the walls. I am glad someone took the trouble to upload it on YouTube (you will find them if you search for "Massenet - Werther Le Bastille 2009) and I do urge you to find them! I do believe that, should you take the time to watch it from beginning to end you will understand what I mean about this particular work. Also, I feel obliged to the insightful analysis we made of Goethe’s text during my bachelor studies in Greece in an extremely interesting seminar. It really opened a new perspective on the opera for me, which might explain as well my particular affection for this work.
 Hopefully I have not made your first days of 2014 bleaker than they should be with this little homage to Massenet. I promise that there is some laughter again further down the list… So, Happy New Year everyone and don’t forget: it’s Richard Strauss Year, so indulge yourself in his music as much as you can, without feeling any guilt whatsoever!