Thursday, September 29, 2011

Il Trovatore: Symmetry & Polarity

[What follows is a critical or academic essay on Il Trovatore. Readers unfamiliar with the opera and its plot can find summaries online at sites like "Production notebook" entries are below this one, discussing some of the aspects of our new production.]

Il Trovatore: Symmetry & Polarity

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (Goya)

I have borrowed Pierluigi Petrobelli’s epigram from his illuminating essay on Il Trovatore collected in Music in the Theatre: Essays on Verdi and Other Composers (Princeton, 1994).

Like many devotees of Verdi’s melodramatic middle-period masterpiece, I am in love with Trovatore for the searing power of its music, and the archetypal force of its quartet of principal characters. If its characters appear at times monstrous, if its bizarre plot blurs the boundaries of the reasonable, so be it. Verdi’s music always trumps. It is grounded in the sure-footed technique of a master and it is visionary as any dream.

Julian Budden’s The Operas of Verdi (Volume 2; Clarendon, 1978, 1992) is generous with excerpts from Verdi’s letters and full of prose vivid and apt as its musical subject. Trovatore charred the landscape of 19th century musical theatre, leaving it “burned up in the white-hot heat of a dramatic force Italian Opera had not yet known.” Here was a work “without parallel in the whole operatic literature – a late flowering of the Italian romantic tradition possible only to one who had seen beyond it.”

Budden says Verdi’s impressive oak of an opera is “melodrama purged of all inessentials.” The most successful of Verdi’s works at the time, it was a work that fit its time even as its anachronisms challenged trends and critics. “The nineteenth century was an age of moral confidence and certainty which found its ideals mirrored in an opera in which no one hesitates for one moment as to what action he or she should take.” Regardless of the implications of that claim, such mirroring resonance may be part of the reason it has returned with a vengeance over the last 50 years. It is worth noting two great singers of the 20th century, the Italian tenor Franco Corelli and the African-American soprano Leontyne Price both made their Met debuts in Il Trovatore – debuts which were greeted with a 42-minute standing ovation in 1961. Is such a curtain call still imaginable?

is a romantic melodrama and contemporary classic at once. Its force is elemental for its directness. It contains some of the most beloved arias and ensembles of its prolific composer’s career. The “Anvil” and “Soldier” choruses are among Verdi’s most famous. And Trovatore is his most pilloried. If imitation is the highest form of flattery then Trovatore is the most favored opera in the Verdi cannon. Parody is always - at some level - a form of envy.

And Trovatore was a target for parody, from the “barrel-organ” & “organ-grinder” labels affixed by critics to those popular choruses and the farcical plot device of the baby-swap “stolen” by Gilbert & Sullivan. The Marx Brothers’ classic film, A Night at the Opera depends upon the broad-side-of-the-barn-sized target of Il Trovatore. From their hilariously seamless insertion of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” into the opera’s Introduzione to the mad-cap up-staging of the tenor’s heroic aria near the climax of the opera (and the film), the Marx Brothers have as much fun as any of the comics & critics in the century following the opera’s 1853 premiere.

Yet its staying power is synonymous with Verdi’s, whose “secret…lies as deep as Wagner’s, and is much less obvious.” Speaking of Verdi’s “Opus Ultimum” Falstaff, the musicologist Alfred Einstein uses the supremely intelligent comedy of Verdi’s twilight to assert “the master who could create such an opera did not write Trovatore as mere hand organ music.”

Il Trovatore is a keen example of sharply etched musical architecture. Impressive in stature, the score is a bold union of form and content. Its four parts create a symmetry whose “structure…helps to concentrate the emotional fire” (Budden) of its four principal characters, and the two interlocking triangles of relationships at its molten core. Four principals and four acts. Two lovers at the common angle of two triangles anything but equilateral. Mirroring symmetries. Polar extremes. A bold palette. Here is the palette our design team chose for our new production:

Other Verdi characters are genuinely Shakespearean for their complex and sympathetic humanity. And like the Bard, Verdi creates villains as interesting and engaging as his protagonists. Iago is vital and central as Otello. Yet Azucena, Leonora, Manrico and Di Luna are more classically Greek than Shakespearean. They are archetypes, neither Shakespearean nor Verismo.

And the classical parallels begin at the beginning. Rather than a narrative prologue to introduce the drama a la Greek chorus, Verdi (dispensing with an overture to cut immediately to action) assigns the narrative to a supporting principal figure. The Captain of the Count’s guard, Ferrando narrates the melodramatic back-story, functioning as a choral prologue with the chorus of soldiers as his audience.

That back-story concerns machinations worthy of Greek tragedy. At a recent chorus rehearsal I described the revenge drama’s bizarre plot. Here’s the Met summary of the opening:

Ferrando, captain of the guard, keeps his men awake by telling them of a Gypsy woman burned at the stake years ago for bewitching Di Luna's younger brother. The Gypsy's daughter sought vengeance by kidnapping the child and, so the story goes, burning him at the very stake where her mother died.

We know Azucena murdered her own child by mistake, and consequently raised her enemy’s son as her own (Manrico). Manrico is torn between love for his (supposed) mother Azucena and his beloved Leonora. Leonora is torn between her secret love for Manrico and duty (to faith and family). Azucena is torn between love of her adopted son and the desire to avenge her mother’s execution. The mistaken identities, blurred boundaries and complex relationships - fraught with tension and ambiguity – are worthy of the moniker "Oedipal." One of my adult choristers commented on that parallel immediately. If that doesn’t help us unbend the twisted storylines, the Greek plays, equally full of melodramatic fantasy, are also the original psychological dramas. Our focus on special effects, the graphic (though not gratuitous) external details often obscure the inner truths and deeper meanings of our dramas (on stage & screen). As the director Peter Sellars observes, our audiences might comment on the “how” or “what” of Oedipus poking out his eyes; the ancient Greeks would plumb beneath the surface to ask “why?”

I’m not sure if Petrobelli had a particular canvas in mind in including the Goya epigram above, but I recall the famously disturbing one by the visionary Spanish painter depicting the mythical horror scene of Saturn Devouring his Son. I think of Trovatore, and I ask myself "why?"

Before we return to Trovatore, please allow another classical digression. The names Agamemnon & Aegisthus should be familiar from the Trojan War, and opera lovers will recognize them as characters from Glück and Strauss. In the latter’s Elektra, the title character’s brother Orestes returns from exile to avenge their father Agamemnon, murdered at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. Euripides and his fellow Greek tragedians were our first psychiatrists, and these plays, poems and stories chronicle (among other things) dysfunction. One of the principal reasons the Greeks wrote trilogies was to trace a set of “issues” through three generations of a family. And this family sure had their share.

The enemies Agamemnon and Aegisthus were the respective offspring of a prototypical pair of brothers-as-enemies, Atreus & Thyestes. Like the Biblical Jacob deceiving Esau out of his birthright, the Greek brothers fought over a “golden lamb, talisman of sovereignty” of their father, Pelops (himself both victim and perpetrator in the cruel games of fate played by the gods). Roberto Calasso, in his marvelous panorama of the Greek myths, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony says Atreus and Thyestes were “both afflicted by the curse of their father, Pelops, which echoed and renewed the curses…[beginning with] Zeus on Tantalus.”

Fighting over a talisman (which can be any coveted prize, title or trophy - and may be a person) Atreus murders Thyestes' children and feeds them to him. And this is just one extreme in a terrible and fascinating tale of obsession and revenge off the charts.

After this gruesome episode of infanticide & cannibalism, Calasso notes “from this point on the vendetta loses all touch with psychology, becomes pure virtuosity, traces out arabesques…” Tracing back to Il Trovatore, we find pure virtuosity in spades, and vendettas all around.

Vendetta is one of those great cognate words appearing often in Verdi and requiring no supertitle to be understood. In a gripping duet near the conclusion of Trovatore, Leonora invokes the name of God for mercy from the Count – who is about to execute her lover Manrico - his mortal enemy and (unbeknownst to both) brother. With exceptional baritonal vehemence, Di Luna replies E’ sol vendetta mio Nume (“My only God is vengeance”). The pith in that phrase epitomizes Trovatore’s undiluted strength at its purest.

Every scene in Trovatore is compact. The concentration of material and the musical (and dramatic) compression focuses the power of the music’s impact. Its nearly relentless perpetual motion sets the few moments of repose in even sharper relief, heightening the sheer beauty of the lyrical cavatinas of Leonora and Manrico. The playwright and opera connoisseur George Bernard Shaw praised the opera’s “tragic power, poignant melancholy, impetuous vigour and a sweet and intense pathos that never loses its dignity.”

These qualities should be kept in mind when listening to the popular choruses so easily dismissed as over-simple kitsch. Polarities imply extremes. And theatrical extremes– from the archetypal characters to the over-the-top melodrama – require extremely effective solutions where form and content meet in drama.

The so-called “barrel organ” music is an example of extreme directness and forthright simplicity whose functionality is as perfectly suited to the personae and setting as every other element in this elementally powerful opera. Like soldiers playing games, horsing around or singing a popular song together before the storm of battle, such moments in the opera are a release valve – if only for a minute – of the incredible musical and dramatic tension which makes Il Trovatore one of the most gripping operas ever composed.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Production Notebook: Verdi Forever

Last weekend, as Amy and I were moving into a new apartment in our building, I came across a magazine I’d saved. It was the first issue of the New Yorker to go to press after 9/11. Art Spiegelman’s cover design was simply entitled “9/11/01.” It appeared to be a monochromatic black color field. Upon closer examination the towers are revealed as etched shadows. The back page featured a haunting poem by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski called “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” The middle of the 21-line poem features a memorable sextet, apparently timeless and ever relevant:

You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

I paused in the unpacking last Sunday to return to that commemorative issue and re-read one of the only pieces in its pages seemingly unconnected to 9/11. The music critic Alex Ross had written an essay, Verdi’s Grip: Why the Shakespeare of grand opera resists radical stagings. It reminded me why Ross is one of my favorite writers on music.

The occasion for Ross was the centennial of Verdi’s death, and from a cross-section of the 400-some anniversary productions of his operas in 2001, he notes “Verdi seems to have lost little of the mass appeal that brought forth hundreds of thousands of mourners on the day of his funeral.” Almost all of whom joined the great Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini in singing – by heart, of course – “Va, pensiero” (the chorus of Hebrew slaves) from Verdi’s third opera and first success, Nabucco.

Ross goes on to observe “The Verdi year has supplied two major bits of information: first, that the audience for opera in America is steadily growing, and, second, that many of the directors who now dominate the opera scene do not know what they are doing.” Opera Roanoke audiences are in luck, for we have neither the interest nor resources to bring such directorial ineptitude here.

Verdi doesn’t need updating; nor do his musical dramas require literal faithfulness to the jot and tittle of period-specific minutiae. Ross aptly compares Verdi to Shakespeare, both of whose works “thrilled both the groundlings and the connoisseurs.” He also makes an interesting comparison to Alfred Hitchcock, another auteur with wide audience appeal. Verdi was a shrewd businessman who quipped “the box office is the proper thermometer of success.” While that axiom does not hold true in our pop-culture dominated world, it does remind us how precarious the balance between popular and critical success is. Verdi may be one of the last artists in classical music to achieve it during his lifetime. But that’s another story…

Il Trovatore is a crash-course in Verdi hallmarks, from his “raging sincerity” which heightens the emotional pitch to the breaking point and “a preference for action over theory” which moves even the thickest of his plots compellingly along. Ross says the sometimes difficult to define appeal of Italian opera has “something to do with the activation of primal feelings.” And “only in live performances, when the momentum begins to build and the voices become urgent, does it catch fire.” The melodramatic excess eventually became the stuff of cliché (as Mike Allen summarizes my take on Trovatore’s insane plot in the Roanoke Times Fall arts preview). Yet “Verdi’s beloved maledictions, vendettas and forces of destiny actually add plausibility rather than take it away; they make the violent actions of operatic singing seem like a natural reaction under the circumstances.”

Indeed they do, which is why Verdi is considered by many (myself included) to be the single greatest composer of opera in the genre. With all due respect to Mozart, Wagner and Puccini (the next candidates in line), Viva Verdi!

I wrote briefly last week about our production concept and design for next month’s Il Trovatore. Like site-specific Shakespeare, Verdi’s settings are secondary to the primary drama of those “primal” human emotions. Even in the most fantastic and supernatural of plots (from The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale to Macbeth) “the play is the thing” because the characters make it so.

We could transplant Trovatore from medieval Spain to the American Civil War, and the gypsy Azucena could be a mother to a band of escaped slaves and freedom fighters. Or the gypsies could be southern rebels fighting so-called northern aggression. Or like many a piece of Regietheater (Director’s Theater, affectionately known as Eurotrash), we could fill Trovatore with non-sequitirs intended as abstract expressions of a cryptic hermeneutics which would make Verdi roll over in his grave and prompt our audience to head for the bar. Instead, we’re setting Trovatore in a stylized middle ground intended to frame its archetypal characters and situations. We do not wish to burden them with the impossibility of historical verisimilitude nor the forced relevance of an avant-garde “interpretation.”

So why do we come back to the same stories, adventures, sequels, series and cycles? If there are no original tales left to tell, why do we continue to stare at the TV, sit transfixed in front of the movie screen and return to the theatre season after season? These stories are sustenance and stimulation, entertainment and exultation. Verdi’s music is full of the penetrating insight into humanity that “zooms in on a person’s soul.” His characters sing the way we long to express ourselves. If any of them are stereotypes, they "are richly detailed ones."

This week’s New Yorker is dedicated to the anniversary of 9/11 and the cover honors the towers’ absence from the urban landscape by reflecting their presence, imagined and remembered, upon the water. Ana Juan’s cover design also pays homage to Art Spiegelman’s from 10 years ago. I don’t know whether Linda Pastan’s poem “Edward Hopper, Untitled” is intended to mirror Zagajewski’s, but both brought Verdi’s universality to mind.

Pastan’s poem describes “an empty theatre: seats / shrouded in white / like rows of headstones; the curtain about to rise / (or has it fallen?) on a scene of transcendental / silence.”

The untitled Hopper painting she evokes could be any theatre or setting where silence speaks volumes, as it always does when we take time enough to listen. Pastan writes “this is quintessential Hopper - / cliché of loneliness / transformed…” Cliché and stereotype become so only from overuse and abuse, ignorance and thoughtlessness. It takes a Verdi or a Hopper to transform the canvas with color, sing memory to life and remind us why we need “to praise the mutilated world” in the first place.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Production Notebook: Designing Trovatore

It was a Verdi family tradition to plant a tree for each new opera the master composed. Il Trovatore is the central opera of three which helped define his career and solidify his reputation as the leading Italian opera composer of the 19th century. Rigoletto and La Traviata surround Il Trovatore and appeared in relatively quick succession between 1851 and 1853. The trees Verdi planted for this operatic triumvirate were a sycamore, an oak and a weeping willow. Our director of operations, Jenny Preece-Thompson won yesterday's office opera quiz by matching the tree to the opera. The weeping willow fits the beloved heroine of La Traviata. Connecting Rigoletto's stubbornness to the sycamore left the solid, enduring oak for Trovatore.

I just returned from a meeting with our designer, Jimmy Ray Ward who (along with his wife, Laurie) has designed the set for our upcoming production of Il Trovatore. Jimmy and I met at the beginning of the summer to discuss my concept for this oak of an opera. Verdi's music for Trovatore is as passionate and engaging as any of his two dozen-plus operas. The four principal characters are archetypes with 3D music to match. Their passions are mythic as Greek tragedy and their humanity as universal as Shakespearean drama (even if the melodramatic strangeness of their actions obscures some of those parallels).

Though I did not have the oak in mind, I did want a set which reflected the boldness of the fundamental passions of love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, sacrifice and revenge. I was drawn by the parallels and the ambiguous tensions between the different "worlds" of the drama. A castle with a dungeon resembles the convent, a soldier camp could also be the gypsy camp. Seen from a distance, a sword stuck in the ground may look like a cross in a cemetery.

So Jimmy Ray and Laurie designed the set accordingly and we discussed their sketches. Now their designs are being built by Joey Neighbors and Rob Bessolo (our technical director and the production manager at "our" theatre in the Jefferson Center). Here's an example of one of the "worlds" Jimmy and Laurie designed:

We met today to discuss the colors the set will be painted, the textures which will help define the surfaces and bring our imagined dramatic worlds to apparent life. The oak-like stature of the opera is reflected in the height of the flats which form the walls. The parallels, mirror-images, tensions & reversals of the story are reflected in the design. This melodramatic story is a prototype for today's action movies, love triangles & / or revenge dramas. Trovatore features separated-at-birth brothers who are now adult mortal enemies in love with the same woman who is herself torn between love and duty. And we haven't mentioned the mad gypsy mother at the heart of the story, whose revelation at the opera's climax prefigures the "shocking ending" we love in our mysteries, thrillers & dramas (no matter how predictable or familiar they may be). Here is the sketch for the setting of that fateful final scene:

As work on the opening production of our 2011-2012 season, "Troubadours & Gypsies" progresses, I will return with more "behind the scenes" reports. Il Trovatore runs for two performances Oct 14 & 16. Visit for tickets.