Sunday, October 28, 2012

They say that falling in love is wonderful -- Tchaikovsky's Tatiana writes a letter

Renée Fleming as Tatiana in the Letter Scene
Are you an angel, sent to guard me,
or will you tempt and then discard me?
Resolve these doubts I can't dispel.
Could all my dreams be self-delusion?
Am I too innocent to tell?
Has fate prepared its own conclusion?

Renée Fleming (s), Tatiana; London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded Dec. 16-21, 1996

by Ken

Is there anyone who hasn't frenziedly punched out an e-mail and then, still in the grip of that frenzy, pressed SEND only to regret it as soon as the frenzy passes? It appears that for all the wizardry of the technology and the instantaneousness of communication, we 21st-century folk aren't that different from our technologically primitive letter-writing ancestors.

In last night's preview we set the scene for what we're going to be hearing tonight: the scene in which young Tatiana Larina, in the wee hours of the morning, declares her love for Yevgeny Onegin, the visiting friend of her sister Olga's fiancé, Lenski. We heard the intense Prelude, the opening quartet, set in the garden of the Larin country estate, in which the sisters sing a duet from inside the house while their mother and nurse listen and reflect outside, and we heard some interactions between the paired young people and Lenski's ravishing declaration of love for Olga.


Now it's several days later, and an intensely excited Tatiana, alone in her room, figures out what to do. We're going to listen to the whole of Act I, Scene 2, where the "Letter Scene" proper is bracketed by scenes between Tatiana and Filipyevna, the nurse. In fact, we're going to break it down into manageable bits with the assistance of one of our CD versions, but I thought we now might just take the plunge.

Here are three performances -- very different but, I think, quite effective in their distinctive ways.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Yevgeny Onegin, Op. 24:
Act I, Scene 2, Letter Scene, Tatiana

TATIANA's room, very simply furnished with old-fashioned whtie wooden chairs covered with chintz, and window curtains of the same material. A bed, over which is a bookshelf. A chest of drawers, covered with a cloth, and on it a mirror on a stand. Vases of flowers. At the window, a table with writing materials.

TATIANA has told the nurse, Filipyevna, that she can't sleep, and had Filipyevna set up her writing table with writing supplies. The nurse has left. TATIANA remains for a long time lost in thought. Then she rises, very agitated and with an expression of resolute determination.

[Note: What follows is the singing translation by David Lloyd-Jones used in the Welsh National Opera English-language recording we're going to be hearing.]

TATIANA: To write is foolishness, I know it,
but as I love him, I must show it.
And though I languish evermore,
I'll learn what rapture lies in store!
Desire has poisoned me with longing;
all day I only think of him.
For though I hide in my despair,
my fatal tempter finds me there;
My tempter haunts me everywhere!
[She goes to the writing table, sits down and writes, then pauses.]
No, that won't do! I'll start another.
[She tears up the letter.]
What's wrong with me? I'm all on fire.
I can't think how to start.
[She writes again, then pauses and reads over what she has written.]

"I had to write, my heart compelled me;
What is there more that I need to say>
Henceforth I know that you'll disdain me
for acting rashly in this way.
But if you'd only show compassion
and think how wretched I must be,
you'll surely not abandon me!
At first I meant to hide my secret;
believe me, I had hoped that you would never know it;
never know, never know!"
[She lays the letter aside.]
Oh yes, I'd sworn that I would hide my love.
And not betray this madness that consumes me.
But now I can't subdue my passion any more;
fate will decide what whatever lies in store.
I shall declare myself and trust in my confession!
[She writes again.]
"Whatever brought you to this lonely place?
For since I live here in seclusion
I would never have seen your face,
or would have known such bitter torment.
My heart would soon have grown contented,
and then as time went by, who knows,
I might have chanced to find another,
agreed to honor and respect him,
and made a faithful, loving wife . . ."
[She becomes lost in thought, then rises suddenly.]
But no!

No, there could never be another
to whom I'd give my love!
My life is bound to yours forever;
this is decreed by heaven above.
Now my existence has a meaning,
that noble soul for which I sigh.
I know that God above has sent you
to guard and to love me till you die!
Often I'd seen you in my dreaming;
your face and form had long been dear.
Nightly you whispered in my ear;
your words disturbed me with their meaning.
And then . . . that dream of mine came true.
For when we met, I straightaway knew you,
and in that instant, beating wildly,
my heart cried out to me: "Love him, love him!"

For you were always there beside me
when, sick at heart, I knelt in prayer.
Your noble presence seemed to guide me
when I would help the poor and
needy in charity.
Yes, it is your beloved vision
that comes in this moment of decision
to stand beside me as I write,
and fill my heart with new emotion,
with whispered promise of devotion
that brings me comfort and delight.
[She goes to the table and sits down again to write.]

"Are you an angel, sent to guard me,
or will you tempt and then discard me?
Resolve these doubts I can't dispel.
Could all my dreams be self-delusion?
Am I too innocent to tell?
Has fate prepared its own conclusion?"
[She again rises and and walks about pensively.]

"No, come what may, I'm now resolved
to lay my worthless life before you.
Pity my burning tears and grant me
your protection, I impore you,
I implore you!
Imagine, I am all alone;
there's no one here who understands me.
[She comes downstage.]
I fear my reason will desert me;
to find release I'd gladly die.
I long for you,
I long for you to be my savior;
one word can set my heart on fire
or simply stifle my desire,
to leave me desolate and wretched!"
[She goes quickly to the table and hurriedly finishes the letter. Then she stands up and seals it.]
It's finished! Dare I read it through?
For shame and terror now assail me.
But since his honor is my pledge
I boldy trust he will not fail me!

Galina Vishnevskaya (s), Tatiana; Bolshoi Opera Orchestra, Boris Khaikin, cond. Melodiya, recorded 1956

Leontyne Price (s), Tatiana; London Symphony Orchestra, Fausto Cleva, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded June 1970

[in German] Ljuba Welitsch (s), Tatiana; Philharmonia Orchestra, Walter Susskind, cond. EMI, recorded May 22, 1948

RECORDING NOTES: The Price and Welitsch recordings are stand-alone excerpts; the Vishnevskaya is from the 1956 Bolshoi Opera complete Onegin . . .

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Preview: Meet Tchaikovsky's Tatiana, who's going to be writing a famous letter

Soprano Anna Leese and baritone Mark Stone as Tatiana and Onegin in Act I of Yevgeny Onegin at London's Opera Holland Park this past July

by Ken

In early September we listened to a bunch of Tchaikovsky waltzes that included the one embedded in the opening scene of Act II of the composer's opera Yevgeny Onegin, which led to mention of the letter that young Tatiana Larina had written to a guest at her mother's country estate, Yevgeny Onegin, the worldly friend of her sister Olga's fiancé, Lenski. The writing of that letter is one of opera's great scenes, and I've been meaning to get back to the Letter Scene. This week is it.

Tonight we're going to fill in some background, and we're going to start at the very beginning, on the country estate of Madame Larina. After the Prelude, the curtain rises on Larina and her children's old nurse, Filipyevna, in the garden, listening to the Larin daughters, Tatiana and Olga, singing a suitably moody Russian duet from inside the house.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Yevgeny Onegin, Op. 24: Prelude and Opening quartet
The garden of the Larin country estate. On the left a house with a terrace; on the right, a shady tree. It is early evening.

Madama Larina is sitting under the tree making jam on a portable stove; Filipyevna is helping her. Te doors leading from the house onto the terrace are open and the voices of the two girls, singing a duet, can be heard coming from within.

TATIANA and OLGA: Have you not heard, from beyond the grove at night,
the voice that sings of love and sings of sorrow?
When, at the morning hour, the fields lay silent,
the music of the pipe, simple and sad,
have you not heard?
Then the music of the pipe, simple and sad,
have you not heard?
LARINA: They sing, and I too
used to sing that song in days gone by.
Do you remember? I used to sing it too.
FILIPYEVNA: You were young then.
[The duet continues as the older women chat and reminisce.]
TATIANA and OLGA: Have you not sighed
on hearing that sweet voice
sing of love
and of its sorrows?
Wen in the forest . . .
LARINA: How I loved Richardson!
FILIPYEVNA: You were young then.
LARINA: Not that I'd read his books,
but in the old days Princess Alina,
my cousin in Moscow,
kept on to me about him.
FILIPYEVNA: Yes, I remember.
TATIANA and OLGA: . . . you saw a youth
and met the gaze
of his sunken eyes . . .
LARINA: Ah, Grandison! Ah, Richardson!
FILIPYEVNA: At that time your husband
was still courting you, but against your will;
you were dreaming of another,
one who pleased you much more
in heart and mind!
TATIANA and OLGA: . . . Did you not sigh? Did you not sigh? &c.
LARINA: Ah, Richardson!
Why, he was a fine dandy,
a gambler and an ensign in the Guards!
FILIPYEVNA: Years long gone by!
LARINA: How well I always used to dress!
FILIPYEVNA: Always in the latest fashion!
LARINA: Always in the fashion and becomingly!
FILIPYEVNA: Alwaways in the fashion and becomingly!
TATIANA and OLGA: Did you not sigh,
when you met the gaze
of his sunken eyes,
did you not sigh, did you not sigh, &c.
LARINA: But suddenly, without even asking me . . .
FILIPYEVNA: They married you off without further ado!
Then, to relieve your unhappiness . . .
LARINA: Oh, how I cried to begin with!
I nearly left my husband!
FILIPYEVNA: . . . The master came here.
Here you busied yourself with the household,
became resigned and settled down.
LARINA: I busied myself with the household,
became resigned and settled down.
FILIPYEVNA: And God be thanked!
LARINA and FILIPYEVNA: Habit is sent us from above
in place of happiness.
Yes, that is how it is:
Habit is sent us from above,
in place of happiness.
LARINA: Corsets, album, Princess Pauline,
the book of sentimental verse,
I forgot them all.
to call the maid Akulka instead of Celine
and restored at last . . .
LARINA and FILIPYEVNA: . . . The quilted dressing gowwn and mob cap!
Habit is sent us from above,
in place of happipness.
Yes, that is how it is:
Habit is sent us from above,
in place of happiness.
LARINA: But my husband loved me truly . . .
FILIPYEVNA: But the master loved you truly . . .
LARINA: . . . and trusted me unreservedly.
FILIPYEVNA: and trusted you unreservedly.
LARINA and FILIPYEVNA: Habit is sent us from above,
in place of happiness.

Mirella Freni (s), Tatiana; Anne Sofie von Otter (ms), Olga; Rosemarie Lang (ms), Madame Larina; Ruthild Engert (ms), Filipyevna (the Nurse); Staatskapelle Dresden, James Levine, cond. DG, recorded June 1987

[in English] Kiri Te Kanawa (s), Tatiana; Patricia Bardon (ms), Olga; Linda Finnie (c), Madame Larina; Elizabeth Bainbridge (ms), Filipyevna (the Nurse); Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras, cond. EMI/Chandos, recorded June 29-July 6, 1992


The sisters, for all they have in common, are also very different. Most obviously, Olga is way more outgoing than the introverted Tatiana. More particularly, Olga has a fiancé, the poet Lenski; the two of them grew up on neighboring estates, and as we'll hear in a moment their parents in fact destined them for each other.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What can we say? Composer Gustav Holst performed this foul deed himself!

HOLST and SPRING-RICE: "I vow to thee, my country"

From the Royal British Legion's Festival of Remembrance, Nov. 12, 2011

by Ken

As I indicated in Friday night's preview, in which we saw a technically blah video clip of a pretty decent performance of the "Jupiter" movement of Holst's The Planets, it was slogging through Episode 2 of Series 2 of the new Upstairs Downstairs that set me off on this musical mini-inquiry.

It is, in a word . . . well, the technical term is dreck. It had a reason of sorts for coming into existence when it did, c1921, as Britons tried to rally from the horrors of World War I. But that's an explanation, not excuse. Just by way of reminder, here's where the music came from.

HOLST: The Planets, Op. 32:
iv. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity: central theme

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult, cond. EMI, recorded 1978-79


. . . is that the deed was done by the composer himself!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Preview: So I was slogging through Episode 2 of Season 2 of the new "Upstairs Downstairs" . . .

Charles Dutoit conducts Tokyo's NHK Symphony in 1998 in "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," the middle movement of the seven that make up Gustav Holst's beloved concert suite The Planets.

by Ken

Yeah, I wish the picture and sound of our clip were better, but at least Dutoit gets the piece, which you wouldn't think would be all that difficult. But this sets him apart from some very famous conductors you can see on YouTube. (I don't want to mention names, but it's a shame that as grand a conductor as Eugene Ormandy, especially in splashy orchestral display music like this, will be remembered for that slack late performance from 1975, and Seiji Ozawa, another conductor I admire a lot, and again especially in splashy orchestral display music, doesn't do much better.)

What we're going to be concerned with in this week's Sunday Classics post is the majestic contrasting section of the jolly "Jupiter" movement, which is to say starting at 3:20 of the clip. If you've been watching Season 2 of the sad new series of Upstairs Downstairs, you'll know where we're going. And if you haven't seen this week's Episode 2, enjoy the music now -- because it's going to be tougher come Sunday.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Anatomy of an overture -- Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri"

Sir Neville Marriner conducts the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in a 2006 Rheingau Music Festival performance of Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri Overture that's even a bit broader than the wonderful 1974 recording we're going to hear.

by Ken

In the concert hall there aren't many more atmospheric musical openings than that of the Overture to Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Woman in Algiers), an it makes for an opening that's if anything more atmospheric in the opera house.

As I mentioned in Friday night's preview, we're at the opposite end of Rossini's career from what I called the "post-theatrical" one, which followed the 1829 premiere of William Tell in Paris, where the composer had relocated in 1824. The reason I wanted to present something from that long period (remembering that he lived on till 1868), in this case the tenor's "Cujus animam" from the Stabat Mater (1831-41), was to show that Rossini (a) didn't stop composing and (b) hadn't suddenly lost his skills or inspiration.

In fact, the very busy decade of opera composing that preceded Rossini's sudden withdrawal from the stage raises a lot of questions of its own. There's a lot of fine music there, and a number of operas that can speak to audiences given adeqaute consideration, understanding, and in many cases casting -- conditions that pretty much never apply. A lot of William Tell itself rises to powerful heights, as we've discussed and heard a bit, but I think it would be incredibly difficult to make this real for audiences and also deal with the portions of it that don't seem to work so well.

In fact, for all the explorations and exhumations of Rossini's vast output, his position in the repertory still rests on the three comic masterpieces he wrote between 1813 and 1817. This may be a good time to listen again to the very opening of the Overture to L'Italiana in Algeri, eight bars scored just for softly plucked strings until that thundering from the full orchestra on the downbeat of bar 8.

ROSSINI: L'Italiana in Algeri: Overture -- Andante, part 1

(1) Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Giuseppe Patané, cond.
(2) Philharmonia Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond.
(3) National Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, cond.
(4) Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner, cond.

Note that in just these eight bars we can hear that we have four very different performances, starting with the quickest, Giuseppe Patané's (using tempos very similar to those of Arturo Toscanini) and proceeding to almost equally broad ones from Riccardo Chailly and Nville Marriner. The Marriner performance is set apart by a distinctive, much more firmly plucked pizzicato from his strings.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Preview: The post-operatic Rossini

Tenor Dalmacio Gonzalez sings the "Cuius animam" from Rossini's Stabat Mater -- in an August 1981 Proms performance with the Philharmona Orchestra conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. (DG made a recording with the same forces as the Proms performance.)

by Ken

It's impossible to talk about the career of Gioachhino Rossini (1792-1868) without taking note of the fact that, though he lived almost another 40 years, he completed his last opera, William Tell, in 1829, at the age of 37. With his retirement from the stage he didn't stop composing, though -- though now, freed from the exigencies of opera-house work, he could decide what and when to compose (probably the most representative products of this period are the short instrumental and vocal pieces collected as his Sins of Old Age), and didn't show a lot of concern for unleashing these works on the public.

Among the "post-theatrical" compositions are Rossini's two major sacred works, the Stabat Mater (1831-1841) and the Petite Messe solenelle (1864-67). The highly unorthodox Mass clearly qualifies as a "late" work, whereas Rossini's setting of the medieval Latin poem Stabat mater dolorosa (The Sorrowful Mother Stood) was completed well before the composer's 50th birthday. For our purposes this week, however, it does give us one example of music that came from his pen following his retirement from the stage.

What we're hearing tonight is the famous tenor solo, "Cujus animam gementem" (which soars famously up to higher-than-high-C high D-flat). I don't think it's going out on a limb to suggest that not many composers would have heard music anything like what Rossini did for the "Cujus animam."

The Caruso and Bjoerling recordings were done as 78s, and so were almost certainly influenced by the 78-side recording limitation. Even so, I think it's fair to say that the Giulini-conducted performance in the video clip above is really broadly paced, even more so than the 1967 Rome Radio performance from which we hear Luciano Pavarotti singing the "Cujus animam" below. For comparison, we're also hearing the Decca studio recording Pavarotti made just a few years later with István Kertész.

ROSSINI: Stabat Mater: "Cujus animam gementem"
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,

now at length the sword has passed.

O how sad and sore distressed

was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.

Christ above in torment hangs,

she beneath beholds the pangs

of her dying glorious Son.
[English adaptation by Victorian poet-composer Edward Caswall]

Enrico Caruso, tenor; Victor Orchestra. Victor, recorded Dec. 15, 1913

Jussi Bjoerling, tenor; orchestra, Nils Grevillius, cond. EMI, recorded Oct. 12, 1938

Luciano Pavarotti, tenor; RAI Symphony Orchestra, Rome, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. Live performance, Dec. 22, 1967

Luciano Pavarotti, tenor; London Symphony Orchestra, István Kertész, cond. Decca, recorded March 1971


We're actually going to be focusing on the other end of Rossini's creative career.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Manon and des Grieux go their separate ways, or try

Natalie Dessay sings Manon's farewell to her table from Act II of Manon, from the same 2007 Barcelona performance from which we saw Rolando Villazón sharing des Grieux's dream with her in last night's preview. (Isn't it wonderful that you can sing like this and still be a star?)

by Ken

We're going to hear more of the full scene, but for now, to try to wash away the taste of the above performance, here's just the aria sung in Italian, as "Addio, o nostro picciol desco."

MASSENET: Manon: Act II, Manon, "Adieu, notre petite table" ("Farewell, our little table") (sung in Italian)
[Approaches the table, laid for dinner.]
Farewell, our little table,
that brought us together so often.
Farewell, farewell, our little table --
so big for us, however.
We take up, it's unimaginable,
so little space . . . especially while squeezing each other!
Farewell, our little table!
The same glass served us both.
Each of us, when we drank,
searched for the other's lips on it.
Ah! poor friend, how he loved me!
Farewell, our little table, farewell!

Mirella Freni (s), Manon; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Peter Maag, cond. Live performance, June 3, 1969

As I wrote in last night's preview, today we're focusing on music that Massenet found to portray the pain of separation felt by both Manon and des Grieux. And as I also mentioned, we're filling in here some knowledge that Manon possesses already when des Grieux shares with her his ravishing dream, a dream that might not seem nearly so dreamy to her even if she didn't know that he's about to be abducted from their cozy little love nest by emissaries of his father, the Count des Grieux.


Saturday, October 6, 2012

Preview: Tonight finally we hear des Grieux's "Dream" as sung by . . . well, you'll hear

Des Grieux (Rolando Villazón) shares his dream with Manon (Natalie Dessay) -- from Act II of Massenet's Manon in Barcelona, 2007.

by Ken

For tonight's preview we're going to revisit the young Chévalier des Grieux's "Dream," as shared with his young lover Manon Lescaut at a time when she, alas, already knows that they're as little as minutes away from everything between them coming to a crashing end. We're going to hear it tonight in a recording I was too lazy to prepare for presentation earlier. As we'll hear once again, des Grieux has no clue as to what's about to happen.

To recap: A high-spirited, ravishing, even magnetic (to men, that is) 16-year-old girl, destined by her family to be shut away in a convent, crosses paths with a dashing young aristocratic scion, and their hormones explode. They run off together and are deliriously happy -- for a while. Not long after, however, a mere couple of acts later (four at most) if it's an opera, one of them will be so destroyed that dying is more or less the easy way out, leaving the other behind, life in tatters.

It's the story of the Chévalier des Grieux and of Manon Lescaut, as first told novelistically by the Abbé Prévost, and then operatically by Jules Massenet and Giacomo Puccini. The case I've been trying to argue is that, setting Romeo and juliet aside, possibly no doomed couple has exerted as powerful a hold on the romantic imagination as these two.