Thursday, March 31, 2011

Serving genius...with love: Carlo Maria Giulini

The great Italian Maestro, Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) was trained as a violist, and among other things, spent nine months in a Rome tunnel hiding from fascists near the end of WWII. These two facts reveal "everything you needed to know about him as a conductor" according to the critic Mark Sved (quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from Thomas Saler's recent biography of Giulini, Serving Genius. Illinois, 2010).

He began his professional conducting career in 1944, making his debut with a score he learned by candlelight during that perilous hibernation. Brahms' 4th symphony was the centerpiece of the first orchestral concert held in newly liberated Rome. An unlikely choice, a symphony more autumnal than triumphant, it was a fitting one for an unconventional maestro who would be known as a "man of principles and ideals, a philosopher and a poet who happens to like music."

Giulini himself remarked about his unique debut, saying Brahms "took possession of me with the most irresistible prepotenza. I directed with all the emotional charge that could come to me at that particular moment."

Giulini's recorded legacy documents an extraordinary musician who was referred to as a mystic and saint as often as a maestro. His finely wrought, deeply affecting performances of Brahms, Dvorak, Mahler, Bruckner, Schubert and Verdi (to name many of the core composers in his predominantly Austro-Italian repertoire) have possessed me with an irresistible force for the twenty years I've been listening to classical music.

Indeed, the first opera recording I owned was a cassette tape of highlights of Giulini's famed London production of Verdi's Don Carlo. That 1970 set (featuring Domingo, Milnes, Caballe, Verrett & Raimondi) began my love affair with what has remained my single favorite opera; the remastered CD is a "must-have" benchmark.

Placido has spoken of Giulini's uncanny ability to embody the music he conducted. In reference to the Verdi Requiem (another signature interpretation), Domingo said "he simply became the music to an almost frightening degree."

Domingo touches on a quality that distinguishes CMG's interpretations. In the words of a Chicago critic, Giulini has "sensitivity, imagination, and skill, and that extra, enkindling thing, the Promethean gift of fire."

His interpretations were borne out of a genuine love and respect for both the music and the musicians making it. Spending time around Giulini "can reawaken an almost forgotten sense of idealism and restore at least a part of one's faith," remarked another prominent critic.

Spending time reading about Giulini's life while listening to the music he brought beautifully, vividly to life is a reminder of the power contained even in a recording. And therein lies a paradox, for the power of great music cannot be contained. Giulini's music-making is red-blooded, visceral and fully human, awaking the senses and touching the heart. It is also searching, spiritual, mystical music for the soul. It resonates across the spectrum of emotions and is rooted in the fundamental core of humanity: love. The title of Saler's book refers to the conductor's calling. Its epigraph is a quote typical of this most self-effacing of "mega-star" maestros:

When you study a piece, the genius is there on the page, and I am here;
I must serve that genius--and serve with love.

"At once the most masculine and least macho of musicians" is another apt description of a master of balance, able to maintain the tightrope coordination "between thrilling fire and dynamism, and tranquil beauty and repose." That balance of polarities and the dynamic tension inherent in opposing them is as difficult to describe as it is to achieve. Saler discusses one aspect of this achievement in the tension between forward motion (horizontal rhythm) and the "retention" of tone quality (the timbre or color in vertical harmony). "There remained a pervasive sense of horizontal motion, with the music pushing through a thick and variably dense web of resistance, thus incrementally building an arc of tension over an entire movement and performance."

The cumulative effect of that "arc of tension" is a central factor in the effectiveness of any large work, whether it be a play, novel, symphony or opera. Sustaining--and then releasing--that tension is one of the impossible-to-teach challenges facing the creative artist either composing or interpreting the work.

I have three of Giulini's versions of the Verdi Requiem (another "desert-island" work). They all have his signature interpretive stamps: rich sonorities (especially in inner voices), committed, dramatic performances from choir, soli & orchestra, and the balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian alluded to above. All three recordings maintain the dynamic arc in different ways. The classic 1964 EMI set is another benchmark, and the obvious first choice. A recent BBC "Legends" live set from the same period is more viscerally exciting, though less polished--and with less distinguished soloists--than its studio counterpart. A 1989 DG recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is often dismissed (like many of Bernstein's late recordings) as being too lugubrious. It is notably "slower" than its predecessors, but no less dramatically paced. The attention to detail is astounding (Giulini was 75) and Gramophone magazine described it as "the most spiritual, reverential, and perhaps visionary yet to appear."

Those same qualities were sometimes found in excess by critics who accused Giulini of romanticizing every piece he conducted. In our era of historical "authenticity" and "period performance," Giulini's interpretations of Bach, Mozart & even Beethoven veer wide from the "early music" schools of interpretation. Saler relays an anecdote that caused the maestro to grin widely even as he told it. He relates a story about Paul Hindemith conducting Bach with a German orchestra aiming for historical "accuracy." Insisting they came "from the direct Bach tradition" they refused to comply with Hindemith's request for "a more beautiful sound and sonority." Giulini quoted Hindemith's reply: "But I don't know how, with no vibrato, Bach could have so many sons." Arguments about period performance style and practices aside, the final arbiter of merit for many of us is simply whether or not the performance was effective, accomplished, and moving. Attention to details of style and "authenticity" result in polished "authentic" performances that remain lifeless if not animated with attention to details of content & intent. Isn't all art essentially romantic?

Giulini paid attention to details of style and substance. That attention was honed in the conductor's nine months of silent hiding, studying Brahms by candlelight. Bernard Jacobson quotes Giulini's wonderful description of the elements that combine to give a composer and a work a distinct "physiognomy."

"At a given moment what we hear is the line that leads the composition. But this is the physiognomy of a face--the nose, the mouth, the eyes. Then there is something which is very important, and that is what is inside this. And this interior body, with the bones and the nerves and the blood--this is really something that I should say in Brahms...needs to be absolutely a part of the physiognomy of the line."

Giulini not only describes the process engagingly, but brings it dynamically to life. Jacobson goes on to remark the "interior body" is one of the reasons why listening to familiar works under Giulini's baton is like "hearing a piece for the first time." And participating in the raw power of viscerally engaging music--that is at once spiritually vital and "mystically intent"--connects one to that nexus where transcendence is experienced and meaning is lived.

Giulini's music-making manifests this nexus--the Apollonian intellect sparked by attention to details (technique, balance, nuance, voicing, texture, etc). The "physiognomy" of the "interior body" is balanced and enlivened with the Dionysian passion of "Promethean fire." (I invoke Nietzsche's polarity in the classical sense of Dionysian physicality, sensuality & emotional openness, not the pejorative Dionysus of decadent excess).

Giulini was not as "famous" as the "Dionysian" Bernstein or "Apollonian" Karajan. And he would have deflected attention drawn to such a comparison. "I think people should listen to the music. Opinions and details about the interpreters are not so important." Agreed. But CMG is in a class almost entirely his own. And it is a class we all need to attend.

In response to a question (in a BBC radio interview) about his repertoire of "grand, noble and spiritual" works and the existence of a moral force in music, he replied unequivocally. "Absolutely...Music gives to life one great thing: hope. If we don't have hope, what we can do?"

That is an important and distinguishing detail about the man and his approach to music. "Music must have a spiritual quality. It is absolute necessity for humanity. Man needs love."

One of the few prestigious offers of public recognition he did not refuse was from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Europe's "musical hall of fame," based in Vienna). He was one of only three living members in the society at the time of his induction in 1978. Karajan and Böhm were the other living heirs to Beethoven, Brahms and their immortal kin. Instead of speechifying, Giulini said "I am at the service of music. There is really nothing else to say."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Butterfly and the Sea...

Joseph Campbell delivered a series of lectures on mythology to the Cooper Union (for the Advancement of Science and Art) in New York City between 1958 and 1971. A dozen of these characteristically illuminating discourses are collected in the book Myths to Live By (Penguin, 1972, 1993).

I have had it on hand with other "reference" books in preparation for our production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Though Puccini's operas do not appear to be close relatives of myth (like those of Monteverdi, Glück and Strauss), his archetypal characters resonate with the force and depth of ancient Greece.

The central chapters in Campbell's book are called "The Separation of East and West," "The Confrontation of East and West in Religion," "The Inspiration of Oriental Art" and "Zen."

Following the posts below, I have been making notes and musing over an essay on the imagery of the sea in Madama Butterfly. In "The Importance of Rites" (from 1964), Campbell relates the structure and form of ritual to mythology, and its galvanizing force on communities that enact such rites. Campbell cites the "life-amplifying service of ritual" in the Japanese tea ceremony, and compares it to the exquisite Japanese garden "where nature and art have been brought together in a common statement harmonizing and epitomizing both."

After citing olympic-style athletic events (like track meets) he quotes Oswald Spengler's definition of "culture" as society "in form." His next example of "the high service of ritual to a society" is the "solemn state occasion" that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He mentions the necessity for a "compensatory rite to re-establish the sense of solidarity of the nation."

I know many of the members of the vibrant Japanese community in Roanoke are eagerly anticipating our production of Madama Butterfly, and are planning to greet the opening night audience in our lobby, dressed in traditional costume.

Victor Hugo's proverb, "music expresses that which cannot be said, and cannot be suppressed," reverberates today. I wrestle with the idea of even attempting to articulate thoughts about Butterfly and the sea in the wake of so devastating a natural disaster as the Tsunami that has ravaged Japan. I believe we can draw strength from Campbell and the "great cloud of witnesses" who have written, composed and created works that evoke--and activate--the deepest source of our human emotions. This body of creativity speaks to our shared humanity and connects us around the globe and across the centuries.

Campbell mentions the symbolism of the funeral rites for JFK, from the seven horses and the military groom to the "riderless saddle" with "stirrups reversed." He cites the "mythology of the seven spheres and of the soul's journey."

When we consider the sea as an archetypal image of the soul and the unconscious, a metaphor for the immensity of the deep and the void, a symbol for god and death, we are connecting to the power of myth to give form and structure to experience.

As Butterfly's friends first appear on the crest of a Nagasaki hill, they sing (in impressionist harmonies redolent of the ocean) "Ah! So much sky! So much sea!" As Butterfly emerges from behind her friends, they turn and sing to her (in lines lost in the wash of sound in one of opera's most beloved entrance scenes):

"Before you cross the threshold,
turn and look, turn and look
at those things dear to you,
look at this expanse of sky,
all these flowers, all that sea!"

The posts below are "about" some of the nature imagery in the opera, and reasons it remains popular and relevant. The eminent conductor, Joseph Flummerfelt has said the great composers give us the "gift of connection." The proverbial "spark of the divine" connects the artist to inspiration, who in turn "translates" the spark into the creative work, which is itself a gift. This connectivity extends across and between works and peoples. As Campbell writes, "these symbolic overtones--unheard by outward ears, perhaps, yet recognized within by all--" connect us to a/the source. Though Puccini did not expound on the role of mythology as a fount of inspiration, his fondness for the (nature) poet, Pascoli (referenced below) is an important clue in understanding why Puccini's music resonates with elemental power.

In the famous love duet that ends Act I, Butterfly contrasts the diminutive, modest tastes of her people to the immensity of the sea.

"We are a people accustomed
To little things,
Humble and quiet,
To a tenderness
Gentle, yet wide as the sky,
Deep as the rolling sea."

Puccini was criticized for a "soft" (ie: feminine) affection for his heroines and his "piccole cose" (little things). And his "sugary music" (musica zuccherata) awakens emotional openness--with all its vulnerability--vividly and directly. The gushing lyric beauty of his "heart on sleeve" voice has been copied and imitated ever since, but never surpassed.

Butterfly compares her hope to a "wisp of smoke rising over the horizon of the sea" as she awaits Pinkerton's return. When Sharpless confronts her with the possibility Pinkerton may never return, she becomes faint, and foreshadows her tragic undoing. She quickly recovers her composure and sings, "It's nothing. I thought I was going to die, but it soon passes, like the clouds pass over the sea."

Pinkerton's ship (the Abraham Lincoln--another name Campbell invokes in "The Importance of Rites") appears in the harbor, revivifying Butterfly and auguring the beloved "flower duet" she sings with her confidante. As they pick flowers to prepare a ritualistic hero's welcome, Suzuki reminds Butterfly

"So often you came to these bushes
to gaze far away, in tears
over the wide and empty sea."

Butterfly responds with poetry that resonates across historical time and cultural space:

"The long-awaited one has come,
nothing more shall I ask of the sea;
I gave tears to the soil,
its flowers it now gives to me!"

From the narratives of the great flood (common to all creation myths) to Homer and beyond, the sea courses with a through-line of connective energy that mirrors all facets of life on earth. It inspired much of what is arguably Puccini's most perfect opera.

James Joyce said the Greek dramas epitomized the central function of art, which is to inspire/provoke the fundamental human emotions: pity and terror (or, love and fear). That catharsis, regardless of type, distinction or quality, opens us to "unfathomed wonder" (Campbell) and connects us to the deep feeling of emotion which is our shared humanity.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Butterfly's birds & flowers...

Madama Butterfly is rare among operas for having a libretto that surpasses its original sources. Verdi's operatic versions of Shakespeare dramas are unequivocal masterpieces (and the libretti--operatic "scripts" or "screenplays"--Arrigo Boito wrote for Otello and Falstaff are brilliant). Verdi's Shakespeare adaptations co-exist with the Bard's plays, but they do not surpass Shakespeare's originals.

Puccini's librettists, Giacosa and Illica based their libretto on David Belasco's play, Madam Butterfly. Belasco based his play on a short story by John Luther Long. Belasco was known as the "Bishop of Broadway" for his innovative stagecraft (advanced lighting techniques and "special effects"). For Belasco, the play was not necessarily the thing, but the spark to fire the imagination for a spectacular production.

Giacosa and Illica's libretto, however, is brilliant. With Puccini, this "Trinity" of collaborators produced three of opera's most beloved masterpieces, La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. And while no one loves a Puccini opera for its words ("it's the music, stupid!"), there are layers of the intricate onion of Butterfly's libretto worth peeling.

I want to consider two such layers. One is a through-line of nature references, with a concentration on birds and flowers. Puccini wrote "If you want to understand my music, you have to understand Pascoli." Giovanni Pascoli was a Tuscan nature poet. In addition to being the composer's colleague, Pacoli was a fellow Lucchesi (analogous to a "Roanoker; " regional pride is as marked in Italy as in the USA).

Nature images abound in Puccini's operas, and they infuse Madama Butterfly from start to finish. Each of the five principal characters reference flowers as metaphor, symbol &/or sign. Butterfly's maid, Suzuki speaks with flowery chatter when first introduced to Lt. Pinkerton. The marriage broker, Goro compares his bevy of Geisha girls to a "garland of fresh flowers" as he tries to sell one to the US Consul, Sharpless. One of the most famous musical excerpts from the score is the "flower duet" Butterfly and Suzuki sing in Act II. The opulence of that music mirrors the excess of the imagery of (literal) showers of flowers flooding the spring with vibrant color and fragrant perfume.

Such imagery also resonates with tragedy. The flower's fragility, and the blossom's inherent transience heighten the tragic drama of Madama Butterfly. Pinkerton's brief closing romanza is a "farewell to a little flower" (Addio, fiorito asil). That his remorse--however belated--is sincere is underscored by his aside in the elegiac trio he sings with Sharpless and Suzuki. "How bitter is the perfume of this flower..."

Sharpless, the messenger (and reluctant prophet of the unfolding tragedy), delivers one of the more ironic instances of floral imagery when he attempts to read Butterfly a letter from the "husband" who has abandoned her. Pinkerton asks him to "find that beautiful flower of a girl" (and break the news to her gently).

The "love duet" that closes Act I is one of Puccini's most beloved scenes. It also features poetry that foreshadows the tragedy with irony worthy of Greek drama. Near the close of the duet's first section, Butterfly expresses her fears, and Pinkerton dismisses them with the words "love won't kill you." Later in the scene, she worries she will be caught, pinned and encased like a real butterfly. Pinkerton retorts, "there's a little truth in that, but it's so you won't get away..."

That this unsettling exchange is set to ravishing music underscores the tension in great drama, and is one of the reasons opera wields such power.

There was another kind of tension when Butterfly first opened in 1904. That premiere at La Scala was one of the most notorious opening night disaster's in the history of the theatre (and if time permits, I'll write a bit about that fiasco). Besides incorporating Japanese melodies into his Italian opera, Puccini aimed for verisimilitude with other musical details. Japanese bells and chimes are called for, as are bird whistles, all intended to evoke atmosphere (or "local color").

One of Puccini's biographers wrote about the crowd's reaction to those bird whistles (in the orchestral Intermezzo, before the last scene). Their unexpected appearance evoked a "deafening variety of cackling and animal cries" from the already vociferous opening night audience. The din was so great "La Scala became a lunatic aviary."

Not quite the impression Puccini had in mind by evoking the dawn with sounds from nature.

“I am writing birdsong, so beautiful!” Pascoli wrote in 1903 (while Puccini was composing Butterfly). The birdsong Puccini writes in the beginning of Act II is colorful and witty. Pinkerton promised Butterfly he'd return when the Robins come "home" to nest. When Butterfly asks Sharpless (in the aforementioned "letter" scene) when the Robins nest in America, a comic exchange occurs:

SH: "I don't know, I've never studied ornithology."
MB: "Orni...?"
SH: ...thology."

This scene is full of such witticisms pointed up by Illica's clever rhyme scheme. In this same scene, Goro tries to peddle Butterfly to a rich prince, Yamadori. Butterfly's control here belies attempts to oversimplify her as a one-dimensional naif. As the eminent songwriter Stephen Sondheim points out, speaking in rhyme is a sign of a character's cultivated intelligence. Butterfly is alternately lampooning and sarcastic, and in command of an intricate ensemble situation. She mimes an American courtroom scene with perfect comic timing, stumping Sharpless in the process. Puccini's use of musical parody (a slow "English" waltz, reminiscent of operetta) is another fragrant layer of significance.

Like the variations on the flower theme, the wit of these internal scenes heightens the drama, turning the screws as this heart-breakingly beautiful opera unfolds.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why Madama Butterfly Matters...

Below is a short "preview" appearing in the current City magazine. Opera Roanoke's stellar cast and production team are currently in rehearsal for our March 18 & 20 performances of Puccini's masterpiece, Madama Butterfly. Over the next couple weeks I will share more about the opera and Opera Roanoke's fully-staged production of it.


One summer night in 1900 London, a 41-year-old Italian, who spoke no English, went to see a new (English) play. This man, who preferred the country to the city, who loved his hunting rifles, who would soon become obsessed with racing cars, was the greatest opera composer alive. The play that inspired Giacomo Puccini that night became the most popular opera in the world, Madama Butterfly.

Madama Butterfly is an archetypal story that is both a relationship drama (a tragic love story) and a cultural one. The “east-meets-west” dynamic has always been vibrant. Consider the word “oriental.” In that single word (noun, adjective, stereotype) is an almost electric current that reminds us how powerful language can be. It also reminds us how important context & perspective are, and how volatile signs & symbols can be (“oriental” carries different meanings today than in Puccini’s time, for example).

Without getting too far afield, a (sensitive) word like “oriental” has enough of a spark to remind us that east-west “relationships” are still charged with energy and dramatic possibility. This potential for drama, emotional depth and catharsis is one of the reasons the Butterfly story is timeless. That this story, with the staying power of mythology and folklore, is best known as an opera tells us something significant about Puccini’s genius. It also opens a window on opera’s unique ability to evoke the entire range of human emotions, from the beautiful to the terrifying. Opera pinpoints these emotions with the concentrated focus of music (wedded to drama, theater and stagecraft) and brings them to life with one-of-a-kind power.

On the surface, Butterfly is a tragedy of lost love. A young Geisha marries a US Naval lieutenant, who leaves her (never having intended to stay), and only returns three years later, his American wife in tow, to claim his and Ms Butterfly’s child. She responds in the only way she knows how (in order to preserve her sacred, family honor): she takes her own life.

This classic, cross-cultural, wartime love story has currency from the ancient world to today, from Homer (Iliad) to Rodgers & Hammerstein (South Pacific). The opera’s abiding appeal resides with Puccini’s heroine, a complex, three-dimensional young woman whose apparent predestined fate never fails to move us. We love Butterfly because our hearts break with--and for—hers. She is an archetypal grieving mother (a variation on the Stabat Mater of Christian iconography). She is at once a self-determining tragic character, a sacrificial victim and a martyr.

And we have one of the world’s most gifted interpreters of Puccini’s heroine for our March production. Yunah Lee has made Butterfly her “signature role.” Opera companies around the world vie for the privilege of presenting Ms Lee’s “commanding and touching performance” consistently praised for “revealing the highs and lows of Madame Butterfly’s emotions.”

Hearing the drama and seeing the music of a great opera come to life before your senses is an experience unlike any other. Opera shares traits with musical theater, the world of “classical” music, and the soundtracks that accompany our movies and TV shows. One of the qualities that make a work of art “great” is its ability to transcend the limitations imposed by the specifics (of setting, situation, etc) to aim for the universal.

You don’t need to know anything about Nagasaki, the US Navy, Italian opera or Japanese tea ceremonies to “get” Madama Butterfly. Opera is special, but you don’t have to be a specialist to appreciate or enjoy it. Just get a ticket, bring a friend, and spend a couple hours with one of the world’s greatest musical stories. Come hear and see for yourself why Madama Butterfly is the most popular opera in the United States.