Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Look, it's Violetta!

Joan Sutherland as Violetta in Act I of La Traviata

Act I of La Traviata ends with Violetta's great solo scene

[in English] Valerie Masterson (s), Violetta Valéry; John Brecknock (t), Alfredo Germont; English National Opera Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras, cond. EMI, recorded Aug.-Oct. 1980

by Ken

Last week I tried to explain that in order to continue with the second example I promised of Verdi depicting a conspicuously aging parent, we really needed to give some attention to the composer's triumphs and tribulations with the "double aria" form carried over from the bel canto period. It's what always used to be known as an "aria and cabaletta" -- the first aria typically situational and often reflecting on that situation; the second aria, in reaction to the first, ususally with some additional circumstances tossed in to alter the situation or the perception of the situation, typically more declarative, often energized for pyrotechnical display.

While Verdi was capable of using the format brilliantly, we have a pile-up of evidence that even as he was making his historicthe "breakthrough" into his middle period with the overlappingly created masterpieces Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata, all three operas contain evidence that cabaletta-for-the-sake-of-cabaletta was something that didn't much stimulate his creative juices. By way of demonstration, last week we took as our musical snapshots the celebrated arias for tenor and baritone with regrettable cabalettas tacked on at the start and finish of Act II, Scene 1 of Traviata, the scene in Violetta's country house (where she and Alfredo have been living idyllically), the cabalettas for Germont fils and père, respectively.

I did point out last week, though, that "if we think of the form as 'double aria' rather than 'aria and cabaletta,' then Violetta's "Ah! fors'è lui" plus "Sempre libera" at the end of Act I of Traviata may be the supreme example of the format." And having dropped that loaded statement in, even though we did listen to this great solo scene, which so starkly rounds out an act that began with perhaps opera's most rousing party scene in February 2011, we can hardly escape "snapshotting" it now.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Verdi at peak power soars and slumps

Thomas Hampson as Germont at Covent Garden, 2009
GERMONT: No, you won't hear reproaches from me;
let's bury the past in forgetfulness.
The love that guided me
can pardon everything.
Come, see your loved ones
in joy with me again;
do not deny this joy
to one who has suffered long.
A father and a sister --
make haste to console them.
No, you won't hear reproaches from me, etc.
ALFREDO: A thousand serpents devour my breast!
GERMONT: Are you listening to me?
GERMONT: A father and a sister --
make haste to console them.
No, you won't hear reproaches from me, etc.
ALFREDO [arising and suddenly finding Flora's letter on the table]: Ah!
She's at the ball!
I must fly to avenge the offense.
[He rushes out.]

Thomas Hampson (b), Giorgio Germont; Rolando Villazon (t), Alfredo Germont; Vienna Philharmonic, Carlo Rizzi, cond. DG, recorded live, August 2005

by Ken

About a month ago I started what was intended to be the first part of a two-part series with a post called "The sound of aging, Verdi-style (1)," in which I suggested that the whole structure of "Di Provenza il mar, il suol," the elder Germont's celebrated aria in La Traviata, is built on fatigue -- or rather this father's struggle to overcome his fatigue in his enormous effort to not only console his boy but to lure him back to the comfort and wholesomeness of his native Provence. My suggestion was that Germont is not only fighting his fatigue but milking it, showing it off to Alfredo as he throws everything he can at the shell-shocked young man.

Our other example of "aging, Verdi-style," tidily enough, will involve a mother's exhaustion, an exhaustion that sounds to me not just physical but spiritual -- as if she's just barely on this side of. I admit that it's a case so extreme, and one that exerts such dreadful force on me, that I'm probably stalling a little. Nevertheless, I really would like to get to it, and regret that before we can get there, we have some gaps to plug, in part because we left a dangling end in our consideration of "Di Provenza": its usually missing cabaletta, which is hardly more welcome when it isn't omitted. And then, once we get into the baritone's cabaletta, how can we not broach the subject of the tenor's, an even feebler piece?

The "aria and cabaletta," which recent usage seems to prefer to call a "double aria," is a carry-over from the bel canto era, when it was common to arrange dramatic situations in which a character might sing an aria typically of moderate pace and temperament followed -- with some tweaking of the circumstances -- by a more excited second aria, or cabaletta, which by happy chance for the performer tends to lend itself to the character of a showpiece.


Monday, May 18, 2015

"Mad Men" Watch: A wistful but fond farewell to all our friends -- and what it was like watching the finale as part of an audience

What's this? Peggy and Stan? This kiss from 2013
wasn't serious, but last night was a different story.

by Ken

Although it was past 12:30 this morning by the time I got home from my real-time big-screen viewing of the Mad Men finale at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, I still did what I suspected I was going to do: watch the whole episode again via DVR. Partly to see the whole episode again, partly to pick up lines I'd missed at the screening, and partly to see how differently the thing played in my living room, as opposed to that theaterful of buoyant Mad Men fans.

The answer to that last question is that it played very differently indeed. There were probably a hundred moments large and small where the audience's involvement changed the way we as a group experienced unfolding events.

Take that wonderful scene when Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), about to begin his new life with his big-time new job and his reunited family, arrives to pick up Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) in her office for their lunch, and are eventually joined by the third member of their party, Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), who professes to be mortally wounded by the news that Peggy can't make lunch but clearly is more concerned but getting to lunch and is only mollified when Pete offers him the tin of cookies baked by Sarah (do I remember who Sarah is? not really), his only remaining farewell swag after he's fobbed the baby cactus off on Peggy on the ground that "I have a five-year-old" -- as one once again does. (Yes!) And Harry, as he leaves Peggy's office, immediately opens the tin to take a cookie. At home this was an amusing moment; at the museum it had gotten a major audience-wide laugh.

Or there was the moment after the McCann-Erickson traffic meeting when our Peggy surprised the heck out of everyone by standing up to that Lorraine bitch (Francesca Ferrara) and demanding to know why the Chevalier account had been taken away from her and Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson), her long-time artist colleague. Stan cringed; the audience cheered. Peggy pursued her case; the bitch Lorraine caved; and the audience went wild! And so it went all through the episode. Can you imagine the way the audience took in the phone call between Stan and Peggy as it took its unexpected turn? I expect I'll be rewatching the episode a number of times in the years to come, and when I do, the experience I expect to recall is the viewing-with-audience.


It doesn't seem likely that we'll stop talking anytime soon about the fraught and enigmatic wind-up David Chase and Co. crafted for The Sopranos. And when Vince Gilligan and his team brought Breaking Bad to a close, there was still so much mess to be brought to a climax and then sorted out that a thrill-a-minute finale was all but mandated.

By those standards I don't think last night's Mad Men finale is going to be remembered as an event for the ages. It's worth remembering that series creator-mastermind Matthew Weiner was at the table for the end of The Sopranos finale, and has certainly had ample opportunity to contemplate that path, and it's not the one he chose.

It's not that Matt doesn't know how to stage a spectacular farewell. Consider the mind-blowing song and dance he conjured to say sayonara to Bert Cooper (and Bobby Morse) in "the first half of Season 7." But the show's grand finale he seems to have chosen instead to take care of business, and I'd be surprised it there are Mad Men fans who are unhappy with the way the show reached its conclusion.

For one thing, having dropped the bombshell of Betty Francis's impending demise in the next-to-last episode, he had no disasters lurking up his creative sleeve. Oh, there was certainly disappointment for Joan in the unwillingness of her splendid swain Richard (Bruce Greenwood) to stand by while she launches her business. Joan may have imagined that she could handle both the relationship and the new business, but I think Richard was being utterly reasonable in insisting that she couldn't, that not only would the business seriously diminish her availability for the new life he was imagining for them, but that at every turn, anytime the business needed her attention, it would take precedence. As Richard knew only too well, how else do you get a new business going?

Besides, did viewers imagine that the writers could create a man we would believe could really be worthy of Joan? I still count her "fate" a solid win, for the wonderful way her new business venture animated her? Especially as a pushback to the appalling treatment she had received at McCann-Erickson, which was not only so personally abusive but such a monstrous waste of her limitless capabilities, which after all even Sterling Cooper had made such modest use of. It's horrible to think of Joan never enjoying the relationship she deserves, but Joan having a shot at achieving personal fulfillment -- that counts for something.

And it counts for something even if she's not going to have Peggy as a partner. Which is probably the right choice for Peggy, who needs to fight her way through to what she can accomplish at McCann-Erickson in order to rise to the heights both Pete and Stan insist on predicting for her -- predictions she herself is scarcely able to hear. But that doesn't stop Joan. As we hear when her new employee answers the phone, Joan even fulfills her perceived need to have two names for her company, to make it sound more solid -- even if both names in Holloway Harris happen to be her own!

There's so much I could talk about, but the best way I can pay tribute to Matthew Weiner's stewardship of this remarkable set of characters he and his team created is by looking a little more at those two great scenes between Peggy and Stan -- first the one in her office which ends so disastrously, and then the one on the phone which ends so well. I thought it was fantastic the way Stan on the phone was able to explain to Peggy be who he wants to be in talking to her in person and how different it is when he then talks to her on the phone, and finds himself talking to the person he'd hoped to be talking to to begin with.

Which sent me, at least, thinking back to all those phone conversations the two of them shared, not just when they were working together but while Peggy had left Sterling Cooper. Aren't these the only times we've seen Peggy truly at ease with herself and with someone she's talking to, relaxed and engaged and funny and silly. Then when Peggy finally recovers from her astonishment over Stan's audacious declaration that he likes her (I imagine that the length of those pauses before each time she said "What?" were the subject of considerable discussion in the editing room), she tells him -- and this too rings totally true for viewers -- that those phone calls were always precious to her because he was always right.

As much as we're accustomed to thinking of phone relationships as limited and in important ways artificial by comparison with real interpersonal contacts, we get to see that for Peggy and Stan the opposite has been true: Their "real" relationship has been in the phone calls. And at that moment during this phone conversation when Stan burst into Peggy's office and did, you know, what he did, and as you can imagine the audience at the museum went into sheer pandemonium, that was also the truth of the moment. I'm sorry you couldn't have been there.

Still, I'm sure that all audience-deprived home viewers got the basic message: that over this past decade Matthew W and his people have given us this wonderful bunch of characters and then treated them with fantastic imagination, yes, but also with scrupulous respect. Thanks, guys.


Amid last night's festivities, MoMI Chief Curator David Schwartz delivered a welcome piece of news: that the amazing Mad Men exhibition the museum put on, which was scheduled to run through June, has by popular demand been extended through Labor Day. I'm grateful for the opportunity for all those additional re-viewings I hope to get in over the summer, because the material is so broad and deep that it really requires a kind of attention that's hard to muster in just a few viewings.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Aren't the jolly boys and girls of "The Gondoliers" really somebodies after all?

"The Piazzetta in Venice, Looking East with the Doge's Palace, the Columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore, the Riva degli Schiavoni and the Bacino di San Marco," oil painting by Bernardo Bellotto (1722-1780)

GILBERT and SULLIVAN: The Gondoliers: Act I, Francesco, Good morrow, pretty maids . . . Antonio, For the merriest fellows are we
During the previous chorus, in which the CONTADINE (peasant girls) have been discovered in the Piazzetta in Venice arranging floral bouquets, ANTONIO, FRANCESCO, GIORGIO, and other GONDOLIERS have entered unobserved by the girls -- at first two, then two more, then half a dozen, then the remainder.

FRANCESCO: Good morrow, pretty maids. For whom prepare ye
these floral tributes extraordinary?
FIAMETTA: For Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri,
the pink and flower of all the gondolieri.
GIULIA: They're coming here, as we have heard but lately,
to choose two brides from us who sit sedately.
ANTONIO: Do all you maidens love them?
CONTADINE: Passionately!
ANTONIO: These gondoliers are to be envied greatly.
GIORGIO: But what of us, who one and all adore you?
Have pity on our passion, we implore you!
FIAMETTA: These gentlemen must make their choice before you.
VITTORIA: In the meantime we tacitly ignore you.
GIULIA: When they have chosen two, that leaves you plenty.
Two dozen we, and ye are four and twenty!
FIAMETTA and VITTORIA : Till then, enjoy your dolce far niente!
ANTONIO : With pleasure, nobody contradicente!
Song, Antonio and Contadine
ANTONIO : For the merriest fellows are we, tra la.
CONTADINE: Tra la, tra la, tra la, tra la-la-la, tra-la-la-la la.
ANTONIO : That ply on the emerald sea, tra la.
CONTADINE: Tra la, tra la, tra la, tra la-la-la, tra-la-la-la la.
ANTONIO : With loving and laughing
and quipping and quaffing,
we're happy as happy can be, tra la.
With loving and laughing
and quipping and quaffing,
we're happy as happy can be, tra la.
ALL: Tra la-la-la-la, etc.
ANTONIO : With sorrow we've nothing to do, tra la.
CONTADINE: Tra la, tra la, tra la, tra la-la-la, tra-la-la-la la.
ANTONIO : And care is a thing we pooh-pooh, tra la.
CONTADINE: Tra la, tra la, tra la, tra la-la-la, tra-la-la-la la.
ANTONIO : And jealousy yellow,
unfortunate fellow,
we drown in the shimmering blue, tra la.
And jealousy yellow,
unfortunate fellow,
we drown in the shimmering blue, tra la.
ALL: Tra la-la-la-la-la-la-la, etc.

Alexander Young (t), Francesco; Stella Hitchens (s), Fiametta; Helen Watts (c), Giulia; James Milligan (bs-b), Antonio; James Milligan (bs-b), Giorgio; Lavinia Renton (s), Vittoria; Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, Pro Arte Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded Mar. 11-15, 1957

Dawn Bradshaw (s), Fiametta; Joseph Riordan (t), Francesco; Daphne Gill (ms), Giulia; Michael Wakeham (b), Antonio; George Cook (b), Giorgio; Ceinwen Jones (s), Vittoria; D'Oyly Carte Opera Chorus, New Symphony Orchestra of London, Isidore Godfrey, cond. Decca, recorded September 1960

Enid Walsh (s), Fiametta; Thomas Hancock (t), Francesco; Joyce Wright (ms), Giulia; Geoffrey Sanders (b), Antonio; Radley Flynn (bs), Giorgio; Yvonne Dean (ms), Vittoria; D'Oyly Carte Opera Chorus, New Promenade Orchestra of London, Isidore Godfrey, cond. Decca, recorded Mar. 11, 1950

by Ken

This week's late-scheduled musical snapshot is kind of blurry, I'm afraid, but seems important nevertheless. I expected to be proceeding, finally, with Part 2 of the "Sound of Aging, Verdi-style" miniseries I began a few weeks ago with Giorgio Germont's calculatedly fatigue-ridden appeal to his wayward son Alfredo to abandon wicked Paris and come home to beautiful, sunny, wholesome Provence -- in the form of the celebrated baritone aria "Di Provenza il mar, il suol." But Friday night I attended a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers which went beyond good-or-bad (there were good things and there were bad things) to show me something about the piece I've never heard before, and that's always exciting.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: "Papa" Monteux, "Petrushka," and fiddlers four

Monteux conducted Saint-Saëns (!) in the Schumann Concerto
[from the 80th-birthday interview with Edward Kelly included in the set]

How Monteux came to conduct the premiere of Stravinsky's
Petrushka (and later, of course, The Rite of Spring)

Monteux conducts the opening of Petrushka

As we know, he conducted the ballet's premiere with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1911. This excerpt is from the recording he made with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for RCA, Jan. 25-28, 1959.

by Ken

If we had an actual snapshot to accompany today's musical ones, it would be of me arriving at my desk to find a package of a size that didn't immediately suggest anything I'd ordered. This is the plus side of dissipating memory: the occasional surprise "gift." (In fairness of a sort to me, the two things I could recall having ordered both had special circumstances -- meaning complications -- attached.)

I had to rip the package open to find, as you've probably guessed by now, the Sony set of Pierre Monteux: The Complete RCA Album Collection, which is to say all the recordings he made for RCA. (There's a fellow online who refuses to grasp, no matter how many times it's explained to him, that this is not the same thing as "all the recordings of his that were issued on RCA" (and thus it excludes those made during the label's affiliations with EMI and then Decca, which after all don't belong to it), and keeps insisting that he was somehow cheated. I have suggestions of what he might do, but I'll be good and keep them to myself.

I ordered this set, even though I already had a lot of the material on CD -- there's the rest that I didn't have, and some that I did that I hoped might sound better. And more than anything, this is Monteux, and longtime readers will have some idea how much that means to me. This is a musician with as deeply resonant and finely tuned musical sensibilities as any conductor I'm familiar with.

When I came to musical consciousness, Monteux (1875-1964) was still very much among us, and still -- into his 80s -- amazingly active. So perhaps it's understandable that for me he is permanently "Papa" Monteux. The new set reminds me, however, that his air of seniority goes back a ways. When he made his first RCA recordings, in San Francisco in April 1941 (weirdly, by telephone line to RCA's recording studio in Los Angeles), he was already 66! And though Sony bills the first 10 of these 39 music CDs, devoted to the pre-LP recordings (there's also a "bonus" CD with a 29-minute 80th-birthday interview), "The Early Recordings," these are of course only Monteux's early RCA recordings; he had been recording in Europe for decades.


Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: "My day in the hills has come to an end, I know"

My day in the hills
has come to an end, I know.
A star has come out
to tell me it's time to go.
But deep in the dark green shadows
are voices that urge me to stay.
So I pause and I wait and I listen
for one more sound,
for one more lovely thing
that the hills might say.

by Ken

You know what today's musical snapshot is, I'm sure. Or just possibly maybe not. It wasn't till yesterday that I discovered that people all over the world who are intimately familiar with the source may never have heard these beautiful lines.

Need a hint? Here's another haunting musical setup, one that we've already heard (back in January 2011), that's kin to the above. (In my head I frequently get their respective musical destinations mooshed up.)

When I think of Tom, I think about a night
when the earth smelled of summer
and the sky was streaked with white,
and the soft mist of England was sleeping on a hill.
I remember this, and I always will.

There are new lovers now on the same silent hill,
looking on the same blue sea.
And I know Tom and I are a part of them all --
and they're all a part of Tom and me. . . .

Valerie Masterson, vocal; National Symphony Orchestra, John Owen Edwards, cond. Jay, recorded July 1994