by Opera





In June 1900 Gia­como Puc­cini (1858 – 1924) was in Lon­don to super­vise the Eng­lish pre­mière of his lat­est opera Tosca, at the time only six months old. Sev­eral peo­ple, includ­ing the Covent Gar­den stage direc­tor, Fran­cis Nielsen, urged him to go to the Duke of York The­atre to see David Belasco’s newest sen­sa­tion, the play Madame But­ter­fly — A Tragedy of Japan. In later years, Belasco would claim that after the per­for­mance, Puc­cini had rushed back­stage, embraced him, and pleaded to be allowed to turn Belasco’s play into an opera.

I agreed at once,” Belasco said, “and told him he could do any­thing he liked with the play, and make any sort of con­tract, because it was impos­si­ble to dis­cuss arrange­ments with an impul­sive Ital­ian who has tears in his eyes and both of his arms around your neck.”

David Belasco

Like so many of Belasco’s rem­i­nis­cences, the scene he describes is dubi­ous, since on the composer’s way back to Italy he stopped off in Paris to talk with Emile Zola about turn­ing one of his nov­els into an opera, and a few weeks later he was enthu­si­as­tic about writ­ing his next opera based on Marie Antoinette. There is no doubt Belasco’s play had left a vivid impres­sion on Puc­cini, even though his Eng­lish was too poor to allow him to under­stand what the char­ac­ters were say­ing. But he cer­tainly under­stood the broad out­lines of the drama and espe­cially the char­ac­ter of But­ter­fly her­self — her world, her suf­fer­ing, and, espe­cially, her sui­cide at the end, in which Belasco had pulled out all the stops to wring every pos­si­ble tear from his audience.

Belasco’s play, which is in one act, was based on a story by John Luther Long that had been pub­lished in the Jan­u­ary 1898 issue of Cen­tury Illus­trated Monthly  Mag­a­zine. Long, a lawyer who had lit­er­ary aspi­ra­tions, claimed the story of Madame But­ter­fly had been told to him by his sis­ter, Jen­nie Cor­rell, the wife of a Methodist mis­sion­ary in Nagasaki, and that she knew the peo­ple involved first­hand. (See side­bar below.)

But the basic story had been told before that, most notably by Pierre Loti in his hugely suc­cess­ful novel Madame Chrysan­thème pub­lished in 1887. Loti, who had trav­eled quite widely dur­ing his career as a navel offi­cer, used his obser­va­tions and mem­o­ries of exotic lands as back­ground in a num­ber of nov­els. (His 1880 novel, Le mariage de Loti, was the basis of Leo Delibes’s opera Lakmé.)

Madame Chrysan­thème tells the story of a young navel offi­cer, Pierre, whose ship docks at Nagasaki for three months. To pass the time he enters into a tem­po­rary mar­riage with a young geisha named Madame Chrysan­the­mum. Unlike the later sto­ries, in Loti’s first-person novel (told by Pierre him­self) there is no tragedy, and when it’s time for his ship to leave the part­ing is straight­for­ward, with only a trace of sen­ti­ment. In Jan van Rij’s fas­ci­nat­ing book Madame But­ter­fly, Japon­isme, Puc­cini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San, he says that when Loti returned to Nagasaki in 1900, he heard from “Madame Chrysanthemum’s” mother that her daugh­ter had made a good mar­riage to a busi­ness­man from the area. (The mother even went so far as to give a din­ner in Loti’s honor, though she did not invite her daugh­ter to attend.)

What made Loti’s novel so extra­or­di­nar­ily suc­cess­ful was his atten­tion to descrip­tive detail. Not only the minu­tiae of Madame Chrysanthemum’s daily life, but of the coun­try­side itself, the houses and tem­ples, peo­ple on the street, reli­gious pro­ces­sions, almost any­thing that made life in Japan dif­fer­ent from West­ern life found its way into the book. It went through 25 edi­tions in five years and was trans­lated into other lan­guages, includ­ing Eng­lish. It was also the basis of André Messager’s 1883 opera, Madame Chrysan­thème.

The arrange­ment between Pierre and his tem­po­rary Japan­ese wife was not uncom­mon at the time. Van Rij says the prac­tice was cen­turies old, and points out that the women who entered into such liaisons were dis­tinct from both the true geisha (pro­fes­sional, highly accom­plished enter­tain­ers who might or might not be avail­able for a sex­ual rela­tion­ship) and the com­mon prostitute.

It was all fod­der for the wave of Ori­en­tal­ism that was sweep­ing West­ern Europe and the U.S. at the time. Not that fas­ci­na­tion with “the exotic East” (which included the Mid­dle East, as well) was any­thing new. Think of Mozart’s “Turk­ish” music, as well as his operas The Abduc­tion from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute, both of which take place in non-Western lands; both of which were writ­ten in Ger­man, using spo­ken dia­logue rather than recita­tives, in a con­scious attempt to appeal to a larger audi­ence than the aris­to­cratic court (itself proof of the broad appeal such sto­ries had).

But the last part of the nine­teenth cen­tury, and the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, saw suc­ces­sive waves of vogues for things East­ern, as one coun­try fol­lowed another as the inspi­ra­tion for home fur­nish­ings, cloth­ing, paint­ings, books, the­ater, and music. In their turn, the details of life in Egypt, China, Japan, India, and other for­eign cul­tures were eagerly con­sumed by the West — all, of course, absorbed through Occi­den­tal senses, which meant the end results were more West­ern, with a tinge of East­ern influ­ence, than gen­uine East­ern art.

For instance, Long’s story “Madame But­ter­fly,” and Belasco’s play, tell us much more, today, about the Amer­i­can cul­ture that pro­duced them, than they do about actual life in Japan. In both, But­ter­fly her­self is a car­i­ca­ture. For one thing, she speaks a pigeon Eng­lish, and in the Long story often behaves like an ill-mannered child:


Cio-Cio-San dropped the baby with a reck­less thud, and sprang at Suzuki again. She gripped her throat viciously, then flung her, laugh­ing, aside.

‘Speak con­cern­ing mar­riage once more, an’ you die. An’ tha’ ’s ’nother thing. You got know at his United States Amer­ica, if one is marry one got stay marry…oh, for aever an’ aever! Yaes! Nob’y can­not git him­self divorce, aexep’ in a large cour­t­house an’ jail.’ ”


Pinker­ton him­self scarcely comes off any bet­ter. His view of But­ter­fly is reflected in a song he used to sing her, which she, in turn, sings to her son: “Rog-a-by, bebby, off in Japan / You jus’ a pic­ture off of a fan.” And when his Amer­i­can wife meets But­ter­fly she com­ments, “How very charm­ing, how lovely you are, dear! Will you let me kiss me, you pretty…play­thing!” Long con­tin­ues, “Cho-Cho-San stared at her with round eyes, as chil­dren do when afraid. Then her nos­trils quiv­ered and her lids slowly closed.” Which sums up the But­ter­fly of Long’s short story and Belasco’s play — a child unable (or unwill­ing) to deal with real­ity, and for whom we’re to weep while, of course, under­stand­ing that Pinker­ton can­not truly marry her; he must marry an Amer­i­can wife and, after all, the all-American cou­ple are tak­ing the son of Pinkerk­ton and But­ter­fly to raise in the U.S. where, of course, he will be bet­ter off.

John Luther Long

At first Puc­cini and his libret­tists, Giuseppe Gia­cosa and Luigi Illica, planned their opera to be in three acts, with the first and third acts tak­ing place in Butterfly’s house and the sec­ond at the Amer­i­can Con­sulate. The scene at the Con­sulate is only found in Long’s story and it is a tear­jerker of major pro­por­tions. It is there that But­ter­fly acci­den­tally dis­cov­ers Pinker­ton is mar­ried when his Amer­i­can wife barges into the room and asks to send a telegram to her hus­band (whose ship is at sea). She has, she says, seen “the baby” and wants to take him home to Amer­ica, though she hasn’t yet spo­ken to the mother (whom she has no idea is sit­ting in the room). When “the blonde woman” leaves, But­ter­fly sadly gives the con­sul the two dol­lars she has left from the money Pinker­ton had given her three years before, and asks that the con­sul return the money to Pinker­ton and thank him for the hap­pi­ness he has given her. “ ‘Goon night,’ said Cho-Cho-San, and at the door look­ing back, ‘Say­onara,’ and another tired smile. She stag­gered a lit­tle as she went out.”

Such a scene would seem to be tai­lor made for Puc­cini, but the com­poser real­ized that But­ter­fly, both the char­ac­ter as he saw her, and his opera, would be bet­ter served by hav­ing all the action take place around Butterfly’s home. “If you only knew how I am rack­ing my brains!” Puc­cini wrote his pub­lisher, Giulio Ricordi, at one point. “The work to be done is not great, but it is essen­tial to bind the whole story together with a closer logic than there is in the Belasco play.”

Rather than demean But­ter­fly by giv­ing her the Ital­ian equiv­a­lent of pigeon Eng­lish, her speech is gram­mat­i­cal. Her ini­tial naiveté and inno­cence is pro­vided by her reac­tion to things, and some­times by her music. For instance, for her entrance in Act I as she and her atten­dants arrive on top of the hill, the accom­pa­ny­ing orches­tra (marked piano and pianis­simo) is col­ored with the use of bells and harp (del­i­cate sound­ing instru­ments), the three-part soprano cho­rus is often writ­ten in thirds, and there is a sense of spa­cious­ness and won­der to the music. But­ter­fly is given the option at the end of her entrance music to float a high D-flat, which gives a mar­velous float­ing effect if the soprano can do it with a sense of ease.


Puccini’s hero­ine, though still 15 years old, is not the help­less vic­tim found in Long and Belasco. She’s a truly tragic fig­ure who matures as the opera pro­gresses, as Edward Berke­ley, direc­tor of the Aspen Opera Cen­ter, points out.

She’s a rebel­lious teenager, fight­ing the world she is from, rebelling against her own reli­gion and fam­ily,” he points out.  “So going through with this whole mar­riage to Pinker­ton is a renun­ci­a­tion of fam­ily and reli­gion. She’s really doing it as much to escape her own world as any­thing. He makes com­plete sense for her. Unfor­tu­nately, the guy she chooses is not capa­ble of the kind of com­mit­ment she needs.”

One way But­ter­fly chooses a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way of life in the opera (but not in the story or play) is by going to the Chris­t­ian mis­sion and con­vert­ing, some­thing she tells Pinker­ton she did secretly the day before their mar­riage.  It’s also the act that pre­cip­i­tates her family’s renun­ci­a­tion of her when her priest-uncle, the Bonze, exposes her action dur­ing the wed­ding. Through­out the opera But­ter­fly repeat­edly empha­sizes her “Amer­i­caness” in a vari­ety of ways.  She inevitably cor­rects any­one who addresses her as Madama But­ter­fly, by insist­ing on “Madame Pinker­ton.” When her suitor, Prince Yamadori and the mar­riage bro­ker, Goro, tell her that under Japan­ese law she’s free to marry since she has been aban­doned, she replies that under Amer­i­can law divorce is not so easy and she is an Amer­i­can wife. She wel­comes the U.S. con­sul Sharp­less to “an Amer­i­can home.”

There are peo­ple who see But­ter­fly as a cheap vic­tim (among them was Puccini’s own pub­lished, Giulio Ricordi who saw the opera as a facile tear-jerker, unwor­thy of Puccini’s tal­ents.) For them, it is ridicu­lous that she does not marry the wealthy Prince Yamadori. But as Berke­ley points out, “Going with Yamadori would be an com­plete admis­sion of her fail­ure in her new life. To her, it would mean she accepts being trapped for­ever in the life she was try­ing to escape.” Bet­ter to fol­low her father’s exam­ple, as the words engraved on his sword say: “He dies with honor who can­not live with honor.”

And Puc­cini did, in fact, give her an hon­or­able death. In Long’s story she sur­vives the sui­cide attempt, and “When Mrs. Pinker­ton called the next day at the lit­tle house in Higashi Hill it was quite empty.” In Belasco’s play, But­ter­fly has the last words, remind­ing Pinker­ton of his promise to return to her when the robins make their nest:


LIEUTENANT PINKERTON. (Dis­cern­ing what she has done)  Oh! Cho-Cho–                                    San! (He draws her to him with the baby pressed to her heart. She waves the child’s hand which holds the flag — say­ing faintly.)

MADAME BUTTERFLY. Too bad those robins did n’ nes’ again. (She dies.)


In the opera her final words are to her child — “Go and play.” Every­thing after that is pan­tomime until Pinkerton’s off­stage cries of “But­ter­fly! But­ter­fly! But­ter­fly!” the clos­ing words of the opera. Which is not to imply that Puc­cini and his libret­tists did not go all out to work on the audience’s feel­ings. They do. When Puc­cini wrote But­ter­fly he had devel­oped greatly as a com­poser, and his expanded skill at orches­tra­tion, and in com­po­si­tion, allowed him a vari­ety of sub­tler touches in cre­at­ing his char­ac­ters, telling their story, and depict­ing their emo­tions. But he was still an Ital­ian oper­atic com­poser, and he used his remark­able skills to go right for the audience’s hearts.

Rosina Stor­chio

He was at the height of his pop­u­lar­ity and con­fi­dent of suc­cess when But­ter­fly pre­miered at La Scala on Feb­ru­ary 17, 1904. That morn­ing he wrote the famous soprano, Rosina Stor­chio, who would cre­ate But­ter­fly, “My good wishes are super­flu­ous! So true, so del­i­cate, so mov­ing is your great art that the pub­lic must suc­cumb to it! And I hope that tonight through you I am speed­ing to vic­tory! Tonight then — with sure con­fi­dence and much affection.”

The per­for­mance was a fiasco. Accord­ing to reports, the audi­ence took excep­tion to the music of Butterfly’s entrance (think­ing it had been used on Bohème), and things went down­hill from then. Much of the sec­ond act was inaudi­ble through the cat­calls, whis­tles, and deri­sive com­ments from the audi­ence, though the aria “Un bel di” was greeted with utter silence. Puc­cini with­drew the score after the per­for­mance (it was the only time La Scala gave But­ter­fly dur­ing the composer’s life­time) and set to work on revi­sions. The new ver­sion was given in Bres­cia three months later and was a suc­cess, though Puc­cini con­tin­ued tin­ker­ing with the opera for some time.

It was first given at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera in Feb­ru­ary 1907. Puc­cini him­self super­vised the rehearsals and David Belasco attended them, as well. With the ritzy cast of Geral­dine Far­rar (who had sung the role in Berlin), Enrico Caruso, Louise Homer, and Anto­nio Scotti, it was a tri­umph. Far­rar would even­tu­ally sing But­ter­fly 139 times at the Met, far more often any any­one else. Puc­cini didn’t think much of her in the part. “It was a per­for­mance with­out poetry,” he wrote to Tito Ricordi, his friend and his publisher’s son. “Far­rar is not too sat­is­fac­tory. She sings out of tune, forces her voice, and it does not carry well in the large space of the theater….However, it went well, on the whole, and the press is unan­i­mous in its praise.”

And so it has been even since, with But­ter­fly rival­ing Puccini’s La Bohème and Tosca for the hearts of the public.



In his book, Madame But­ter­fly, Japon­isme, Puc­cini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San, Jan van Rij inves­ti­gates the account Jen­nie Cor­rell told her brother, John Luther Long, which served the basis for his short story, “Madame Butterfly.”

In involved three Scot­tish broth­ers, Thomas, Alex, and Alfred Glover who lived in Nagasaki about 1870. One of them (Alex, prob­a­bly) was involved with a woman named Kaga Make, who worked as an enter­tainer under the name Cho-san, Miss But­ter­fly. She became preg­nant and gave birth to a son on Decem­ber 8, 1870. When the father aban­doned her and her son, the father’s brother, Thomas, and his com­mon law Japan­ese wife, adopted the boy and changed his name to Tomis­aburo. Tom Glover, as he was known, was well edu­cated, study­ing at pres­ti­gious Japan­ese schools and at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia in Philadel­phia (biol­ogy and nat­ural history).

Kaga Make mar­ried a Japan­ese man in 1877 and moved away. She divorced him in 1888 and moved back to Nagasaki, where she died in 1906.

Her son, Tom, mar­ried a Japan­ese woman whose father was a British mer­chant. They had no chil­dren. His wife died of tuber­cu­lo­sis in 1943 and, shortly after Japan sur­ren­dered in 1945, Tom Glover, the orig­i­nal “Trou­ble,” com­mit­ted suicide.


This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the 2007 Aspen Opera The­ater pro­gram.

The photo at the top of the arti­cle shows Geral­dine Far­rar as Cio-Cio-San. She was the Met’s first But­ter­fly and sang the role 139 times with the com­pany, far more than any­one else in Met his­tory. The photo is auto­graphed to Dorothy Kirsten in 1946, the year she sang the first of her 68 per­for­mances of Madama But­ter­fly at the Met. The role was the one both Far­rar and Kirsten sang most often with the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera.



Räv vid Revhusen - juli 2012.


It is star­tling to real­ize that Leoš Janáček’s enchant­ing yet pro­found opera, The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vixen, had its ori­gin in what was close to being a news­pa­per car­toon strip.

From April through June, 1920, Brno’s pop­u­lar lib­eral daily, Lidové noviny, pub­lished the illus­trated story of a clever vixen con­stantly out­wit­ting a forester. The 200 or so sketches had been drawn by the painter Stanislav Lolek (1873 – 1936) who had been appren­ticed as a forester before turn­ing to art. One of the paper’s edi­tors saw the sketches and assigned Rudolf Těs­nohlídek (1882 – 1928), the Lidové noviny’s law reporter, to come up with some text to accom­pany the illustrations.

The printer mis­took Těsnohlídek’s orig­i­nal title, “Liška Bystronožka” (Vixen Fleet­foot) for “Liška Bystroužka” (Vixen Sharp-Ears”) — and so she has been ever since. Janáček’s title for his opera is Adven­tures of the Vixen Bystroušky (Příhody Lišky Bystroušky). When Max Brod trans­lated the opera into Ger­man, the title became Das schlaue Füch­slein or The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vixen—the title by which the opera is known almost every­where out­side of Janáček’s homeland.

The dif­fer­ence in the word­ing of the title is not mere pedantry. As Michael Ewans has pointed out in Janáček’s Tragic Operas, the Ger­man and Eng­lish trans­lated titles “are sadly symp­to­matic: the West has shown too lit­tle abil­ity to inter­pret an opera whose vision is as far from Dis­ney as it is from the clumsy sym­bol­ism of Max Brod’s ‘arrange­ment for the Ger­man stage.’ Janáček’s ani­mals are not patron­ized or sen­ti­men­tal­ized by the attri­bu­tion of human fea­tures: human singers and dancers, tak­ing on the masks and skins of insect, bird or ani­mal, find them­selves for the dura­tion of this opera mem­bers of an order nobler, by its deep humor and its sim­ple, amoral enjoy­ment of life, than that of human­ity. The par­tic­u­lar moments where ani­mals assume the man­ners of men sat­i­rize human rather than ani­mal behav­ior; no ani­mal is por­trayed iron­i­cally, except the dog and hens who have suc­cumbed self-righteously to exploita­tion by mankind.”

This unsen­ti­men­tal view of the opera is shared by Edward Berke­ley, direc­tor of Aspen Opera The­ater Cen­ter. “In our pro­duc­tion, the sense of char­ac­ter, in terms of ani­mals, is going to be strong, but it def­i­nitely is going to go away from ‘cute.’ The period will be the 1920’s or ’30s with a Euro­pean fla­vor. It will be call­ing back to a time of aware­ness of the earth and the val­ues of the earth, a kind of re-finding one­self in nature.”

Through­out all the adven­tures the Vixen has dur­ing the course of the opera, there is a strong under­ly­ing theme of the rela­tion­ship between humans and the world of nature. Janáček empha­sized this part of the work — as well as the cycli­cal nature of renewal found in life itself — by the changes he made in Těsnohlídek’s orig­i­nal version.

Těsnohlídek’s story was largely devoted to the numer­ous adven­tures of Vixen Sharp-Ears, cul­mi­nat­ing in her mar­riage to the Fox. Janáček, how­ever, used this end­ing to the orig­i­nal story as the finale to Act Two of his opera. For Act Three, the com­poser used a few inci­dents from ear­lier in Těsnohlídek’s story, pri­mar­ily the inci­dent with Harašta the poacher — but with a major dif­fer­ence. In Janáček’s ver­sion, the poacher kills the Vixen, which com­pletely changes the nature of the work. How­ever, the pro­fun­dity of Janáček’s ver­sion is sealed by not end­ing the opera with Sharp-Ear’s death (which would be merely sen­ti­men­tal), but by the last two scenes of the opera which are Janáček’s invention.

The almost painful nos­tal­gia of the scene at the Inn where the School­mas­ter real­izes his beloved Theresa has mar­ried another man, and the Forester announces the Vixen has left her bur­row and dis­ap­peared, gives way to the aston­ish­ing trans­for­ma­tion scene with which the opera ends.  The Forester enters the for­est with his gun, as he did at the begin­ning of the opera. But this time — because of his rela­tion­ship with the Vixen, and because he has been open to learn from her — he sees Nature in all its beauty, and it renews him. He val­ues not only the mush­room he picks, but every­thing he sees. Unlike the mem­o­ries he has of his wed­ding day in the open­ing scene (“I feel as tired as I did on my wed­ding night. The next day I was dead to the world” — an obvi­ous metaphor to his being dead to the world of nature in which he found him­self) this time — as he rev­els in the splen­dor of nature all around him — he remem­bers the pas­sion of the love they had felt and the all con­sum­ing kisses they had shared.  As in the open­ing scene, the Forester falls asleep, and this time meets the descen­dants of the Vixen and the Frog from Act One.

In an mar­velous touch, the huge dra­matic arch the Forester has trav­eled since we first met him is deftly con­veyed by Janáček’s last stage direc­tion in the piece, the last words in the score: “Absent­mind­edly, the Forester lets his gun slip to the ground.”  He no longer needs it. He is at peace with Nature.

When Max Brod wanted Janáček to write some final words for the Forester “in which he could sink into rumi­na­tion,” the com­poser adamantly refused. “In the final scene the Forester’s gun sim­ply slips from his hand,” he insisted. “Noth­ing more; let every­one work out for him­self what he will.”

Vixen is a life-giving piece,” Berke­ley explains. “That sense of renewal — that we don’t loose the past, but we grow by accept­ing it. By accept­ing the Vixen’s death, and then look­ing into the future, the shape of the opera says that death is a nat­ural part of things, and from that sense of renewal we can learn and grow.

The work is a para­ble about what we should appre­ci­ate and learn from nature and the nat­ural cycle — and about male/female rela­tion­ship in gen­eral.”  Berke­ley agrees with the critic who said the Vixen is the embod­i­ment of unre­strained fem­i­nin­ity. “The growth of the piece is toward her own dis­cov­ery of that — and the Forester dis­cov­er­ing that. The scene with the Fox, at the end of Act Two, is where it all comes out. That’s a glo­ri­ous moment!”

Aside from a few moments, such as the humor­ous polit­i­cal harangue the Vixen gives the Hens in Act One, there are com­par­a­tively few words in the opera’s libretto. It is the music, by far, through which Janáček sub­tly con­veys the shift­ing rela­tion­ships. “The musi­cal insight lav­ished on the depic­tion of each suc­ces­sive stage of [the Vixen’s] life is intended to have deep mean­ing for us,” writes Ewans. “Human beings, like vix­ens, are born, grow, marry and die; those seen in the opera live lives poor in com­par­i­son with Bystrouška’s — except for the Forester, whose road to wis­dom is care­fully charted, and on whose clos­ing vision Janáček lav­ished some of his most inspired music.… Janáček illu­mi­nates for us the cycles of life and nature; and at the same time he shows us arche­types of the moral­ity of the humans who can­not accept those cycles — and the road by which one human even­tu­ally can.”

The orches­tral inter­ludes and mimes/dances were inte­gral parts of Janáček’s vision of the story from the very begin­ning, and he resisted all well-meaning sug­ges­tions to add con­ven­tional arias so the ani­mals could “explain” things.

The Vixen is a for­est idyll; only a hint should sur­face of our cycle and that of ani­mal life,” he wrote to his pub­lisher. “That is enough — it is true that for most this sym­bol­ism is too lit­tle. The Vixen can only eat rab­bits, not romances and arias.”

I’m hop­ing the audi­ence will come away from the per­for­mances really lov­ing the music,” says Berke­ley. “That sounds like such a cliché, but for me the piece is such a rev­e­la­tion of Janáček’s incred­i­ble musi­cal style that is really a unique voice. It’s an impor­tant voice. It’s roman­tic, it’s very beau­ti­ful, and here it’s con­vey­ing a quite seri­ous vision of nature, and the impor­tance of nature in our lives.  As we destroy the envi­ron­ment, we should be learn­ing how to restore our­selves the way nature does, and renew our­selves, rather than destroy­ing each other and destroy­ing nature.”


Janáček and Animals

Janáček loved ani­mals and the fam­ily always had numer­ous pets: dogs, pigeons, a gold finch — and three hens.  Marie Ste­jskalová, the Janáček’s ser­vant for over 40 years, remem­bered, “Janáček talked to the hens as to chil­dren, they looked at him, answered some­thing and he under­stood. In the evening, when he sat down in the gar­den in his arm­chair to read the paper, he rapped on the table, like a school­mas­ter at school. The hens came run­ning at once, jumped up [onto the table] and kept him company.”

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1922, while he was work­ing on The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vixen, Janáček and some friends went into the for­est near Huk­valdy to observe a fam­ily of foxes. The game­keeper, J. D. Sládek, later wrote, “We reached Babí hora [Old Woman Moun­tain], and indeed, as if to order, the vixen’s fam­ily emerged from the den and began to show off and frisk about. Janáček started twitch­ing with excite­ment until in the end he fright­ened the foxes away.

‘Why couldn’t you keep still, Dr. Janáček? You could have gone on looking?’

Janáček, com­pletely exhil­a­rated and happy, just brushed this aside. ‘I saw her! I saw her!’


This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the Aspen Opera The­ater pro­gram, 2005.

The photo at the top of the arti­cle is by Jonn Leffmann.

The draw­ings in the arti­cle are Stanislav Lolek’s of “Vixen Fleetfoot.”









[Adelina] Patti con­tin­ued her new depar­ture into Wag­n­er­land by singing Elisabeth’s prayer from Tannhäuser,” wrote George Bernard Shaw on July 18, 1894. “Now, if I express some skep­ti­cism as to whether Patti cares a snap of her fin­gers for Elis­a­beth or Wag­ner, I may, after all these years of ‘Una voce’ and ‘Bel rag­gio,’ very well be par­doned. But it is beyond all doubt that Patti cares most intensely for the beauty of her own voice and the per­fec­tion of her singing. What is the result? She attacks the prayer with the sin­gle aim of mak­ing it sound as beau­ti­ful as pos­si­ble; and this being pre­cisely what Wagner’s own musi­cal aim was, she goes straight to the right phras­ing, the right vocal touch, and the right turn of every musi­cal fig­ure, thus mak­ing her Ger­man rivals not only appear in com­par­i­son clumsy as singers, but actu­ally obtuse to Wagner’s meaning.

If Patti were to return to the stage and play Isolde, though she might very pos­si­bly stop the drama half a dozen times in each act to acknowl­edge applause and work in an encore…the pub­lic might learn a good deal about Isolde from her which they will never learn from any of the illus­tri­ous band of Ger­man Wag­ner hero­ines who are queens at Bayreuth, but who can­not sing a grup­petto for all that.”

George Bernard Shaw

Shaw, who knew a great deal about the art of singing and spent much of his tenure as music critic bul­ly­ing the best singers of his day into adding Wag­ner to their reper­tory, ends with a cou­ple of sen­tences that should be posted above the desk of every­one respon­si­ble for cast­ing opera today: “Wag­ner means his music to be sung with the most exquis­ite sen­si­tive­ness in point of qual­ity of tone and pre­ci­sion of pitch, exactly as Mozart did…I am really tired of going to the the­ater to hear the best music asso­ci­ated with the worst singing, and the best singing in the worst music.”

Unfor­tu­nately for most opera singers — to say noth­ing of audi­ences — Wag­ner him­self often sab­o­taged the per­for­mance of his works with “exquis­ite qual­ity of tone” by mak­ing sheer sur­vival a pre­em­i­nent con­sid­er­a­tion in some of his best-known roles. If a singer is wor­ried pri­mar­ily about just get­ting out the notes, being heard above a roar­ing orches­tra, and mak­ing it to the end of the evening, vocal nuance and qual­ity of tone are likely to be jet­ti­soned early on, in the inter­est of stay­ing afloat through a per­for­mance of Brünnhilde, Siegfried, Isolde, or Tris­tan. It is pos­si­ble to sing Wagner’s heav­i­est roles beau­ti­fully and still be heard, but how often does God send along a Kirsten Flagstad?

In Lohen­grin, Wag­ner wrote an entire opera for human-size singers. To bor­row an anal­ogy from the world of sports: if Amina in La Son­nam­bula and many of her bel canto cousins can be com­pared to a hundred-yard sprinter, and Siegfried or Tris­tan to an Olympic weight lifter, then Lohen­grin might be an ice skater, who needs sta­mina and phys­i­cal strength, but also grace and poise, as well as the abil­ity to main­tain a fluid, long line. In Lohen­grin, Wag­ner wrote roles that make their great­est effect, not through sheer lung power but with the abil­ity to infuse a beau­ti­ful vocal line with all the nuances and yes, charm, a singer would use to bring to life an opera by Bellini or Donizetti. This in the process of con­struct­ing an opera made up of arias, ensem­bles, cho­ruses and finales, which — when prop­erly per­formed — send shiv­ers of delight down the spines of bel canto fans.

Wag­ner him­self was thor­oughly famil­iar with bel canto opera. As a young con­duc­tor he had pre­pared and led count­less per­for­mances of the reper­tory. While con­duct­ing in Riga, he even went so far as to doc­tor up a per­for­mance of Bellini’s Norma by writ­ing an addi­tional aria for bass and male cho­rus, “Norma, il pre­desse.” (Dur­ing his early years in Paris, Wag­ner tried to talk the great bass Luigi Lablache into adding the aria to his por­trayal of Oroveso, but this idea was turned down on the grounds that Norma was too well known by the pub­lic to insert extra music.) In Paris, Wag­ner often heard the great singers of his time, such as the tenor Gio­vanni Bat­tista Rubini, and the per­for­mances left an indeli­ble impres­sion on the young composer.

R[ichard] sings a can­tilena from I Puri­tani and remarks that Bellini wrote melodies love­lier than one’s dreams,” Cosima Wag­ner wrote in her diary on August 3, 1872. “The melody recalls Rubini to him, how won­der­fully he sang it, and he observes: ‘Our Ger­man singers have to go about it in an entirely dif­fer­ent way, because they have not got this gift.’ ” In March 1878, Wag­ner enter­tained guests by play­ing parts of Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Mon­tec­chi, La Straniera, and Norma. “There is real pas­sion and feel­ing here, and the right singer has only to get up and sing it for it to win all hearts,” Cosima quotes her hus­band as say­ing, “I have learned things from them which Messrs. Brahms & Co. have never learned, and they can be seen in my melodies.”

Indeed they can. Take Elsa’s entrance aria, “Ein­sam in trüben Tagen.” Like many bel canto entrance arias (Lucrezia Borgia’s “Com’è bello,” for instance), on paper it looks sim­ple, but to make its effect, it must be not only beau­ti­fully sung but mined for every emo­tional and musi­cal nuance, a dif­fi­cult feat. Oth­er­wise the aria falls flat.

In the best bel canto tra­di­tion, Wag­ner uses the vocal line itself to describe Elsa’s char­ac­ter. Her pure, trust­ing nature and lack of worldly expe­ri­ence is reflected in her rather nar­row vocal range: only from E-flat above mid­dle C to A-flat at the top of the staff, a note she sings only twice dur­ing the entire aria. Yet her sim­ple vocal line is stud­ded with grace notes — begin­ning in the very first mea­sure — and Wag­ner con­structed the aria to pro­vide numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties for por­ta­mento, and for a soprano to color phrases by using crescendo and dimin­u­endo, as well as by tak­ing sub­tle lib­er­ties with the rhythm, to vary their shape.

Rosa Pon­selle

A prime exam­ple of a singer doing exactly what needs to be done to bring the aria to life is to be found at the end of Rosa Ponselle’s 1923 record­ing. Though Pon­selle never sang the role onstage, she recorded the aria in Ger­man and, on the basis of this excerpt, could have been a superb Elsa. In the last phrase, “was ich bin!,” Pon­selle lingers on the E-flat at the top of the staff (“was”), then slowly reduces its vol­ume, before using a por­ta­mento down to the G (“ich”) and gen­tly lean­ing into and caress­ing the last note (“bin”). With just these three notes, there can be no doubt that Elsa is already in love with her cham­pion, even though he has not yet appeared. It is superb drama, con­veyed solely through the voice.

Ortrud too gains con­sid­er­able power when she approaches her phras­ing from a bel canto stand­point, rather than being con­tent merely to be a vocal blow­torch. Lis­ten­ing to Lohen­grin excerpts per­formed by the Vienna State Opera dur­ing a visit to Paris in 1933 (Vol­ume 16 of the Vienna State Opera Live series from Koch/Schwann), I was stunned by Gertrude Rünger’s great Act II out­burst, “Entweite Göt­ter!” Where many Ortruds sim­ply bel­low the F-sharps at “Wodan!” and “Freia!” in mono­chro­matic fash­ion, leav­ing the depic­tion of the drama to the orches­tra, Rünger hits the cli­mac­tic notes cleanly, exactly on pitch, ele­gantly. (Remem­ber, Ortrud is a noble­woman, and her fam­ily ruled the coun­try for gen­er­a­tions before the upstart Chris­tians took over.) Rünger then bor­rows from Wagner’s dynamic mark­ing for the tim­pani, mak­ing grad­ual crescen­dos on both of the F-sharps. This gives her per­for­mance an astound­ing sense of power in reserve. Just by her vocal inflec­tion on those two notes, Rünger lets us know her Ortrud still has plenty of tricks up her sleeve.

In the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, the singer’s voice was supreme. The orches­tra was used to sup­port and frame the voice, never to com­pete with it, a method Wag­ner incor­po­rated in Lohen­grin to a sur­pris­ing degree. Of course, it is Wag­ner, so the Lohen­grin orches­tra is an impor­tant part of the drama. But even a cur­sory glance at the score shows a con­sid­er­able amount of a cap­pella singing, which Wag­ner uses to great dra­matic purpose.

Take Lohengrin’s entrance. After being her­alded by a rous­ing eight-part cho­rus and for­tis­simo orches­tra, Lohengrin’s first phrase is sung — a cap­pella. In fact, most of his farewell to the swan is unac­com­pa­nied; what dis­creet orches­tral color Wag­ner uses is marked pianis­simo and is sup­posed to dimin­u­endo fur­ther from that pianis­simo. Clearly Wag­ner meant to use Lohengrin’s first thir­teen mea­sures to seduce the audi­ence by purely vocal means, by the way the tenor shapes his phrases, by the ele­gance and grace with which he sings Wagner’s embellishments.

Another exam­ple of Wagner’s use of a cap­pella singing appears at the begin­ning of the Act I finale, shortly before Lohen­grin and Tel­ra­mund fight their duel. Here, Wag­ner had the audac­ity to write an a cap­pella quin­tet! As if it were not tough enough for the singers to stay squarely on pitch, Wag­ner makes it even tougher: Ortrud, who has been stand­ing around ever since the cur­tain went up (about fifty min­utes before), finally sings for the first time all evening — a cap­pella. When Wag­ner brings in the first male cho­rus, then the orches­tra, the effect is noth­ing short of hair-raising.

But then, Wag­ner also clearly under­stood the won­der­ful bel canto tra­di­tion of the two-part oper­atic finale, that mass­ing onstage of cho­rus and prin­ci­pals, all of whom give voice to their (sep­a­rate) feel­ings at that moment, first in slow tempo, then much more quickly. One of the tricks bel canto com­posers used to build excite­ment dur­ing the finale was to give one or two of the prin­ci­pal singers a long, flow­ing melody that would float ecsta­t­i­cally above the pul­sat­ing rhythm of the cho­rus, orches­tra, and chop­pier vocal lines of the other soloists. Donizetti used the device to great effect time after time — at the end of Act II of Lucia di Lam­mer­moor, for instance.

Wag­ner fol­lows this exam­ple at the end of Act I, dur­ing the gen­eral rejoic­ing that fol­lows Lohengrin’s defeat of Tel­ra­mund. He gives Elsa a broad vocal line (even embell­ish­ing her music at one point with a turn) that effec­tively dom­i­nates the oth­er­wise intensely rhyth­mic finale. In per­fect Bellini or Donizetti fash­ion, Wag­ner keeps stretch­ing the length of Elsa’s phrases, finally ask­ing her to stretch one word, “Alles,” for seven and a half mea­sures as she holds a high B-flat for four of the mea­sures, then moves step­wise (still singing the first syl­la­ble of  “Alles”) down to C. It’s all about beau­ti­ful singing, and an Elsa in radi­ant voice, cou­pled with the right con­duc­tor, can bring down the house every time.

Per­haps it is in the bridal-chamber scene of Act III that Wag­ner wrote Lohen­grin’s most heart­felt music. The inti­macy he wrote of the duet for Elsa and Lohen­grin, “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt,” calls for the purest bel canto singing from the tenor and soprano. For the duet to make its max­i­mum effect, both singers must use the same sense of rubato that Maria Callas did in her 1949 record­ing of “Qui la voce.” It is the sub­tle speed­ing up or the slight hes­i­ta­tion a mas­ter singer uses that truly brings the melody to life.

Franz Völker as Lohengrin

There are two record­ings of “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt” that illus­trate this vividly, both based on the deservedly leg­endary 1936 Bayreuth per­for­mances of Lohen­grin with Franz Völker and Maria Müller. The com­mer­cial record­ing (on Teldec CD) is con­ducted by Heinz Tiet­jen, and the sound is more than good, But to be really swept away by the power of Wag­ner at his bel canto best, lis­ten to the thirty min­utes worth of excerpts from the live July 19, 1936 Bayreuth per­for­mance (avail­able on var­i­ous labels). Under the mag­i­cal baton of Wil­helm Furtwän­gler, Völker and Müller sim­ply are Lohen­grin and Elsa, over­whelm­ingly in love. Their music pul­sates with emo­tion: the vocal lines have a truth and life that are almost unthink­able today. The care­fully con­trolled, dreamy qual­ity of the per­for­mance reminds us pow­er­fully that once upon a time the Ger­mans were viewed as a roman­tic peo­ple, not a bru­tal, mil­i­taris­tic soci­ety. Lis­ten­ing to Völker and Müller sing “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt,” one can eas­ily under­stand why tenors like Enrico Caruso, even Fer­nando De Lucia, would chose to sing the part of Lohen­grin — in Ital­ian, of course. (Though Caruso never recorded any of the arias, De Lucia recorded an Ital­ian ver­sion of “Mein lieber Schwan.”) One can also under­stand how Jean de Reszke could, and did, suc­cess­fully alter­nate per­for­mances of Lohen­grin and Faust, or Lohen­grin and Roméo et Juli­ette, at the old Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House.

And lis­ten­ing to the ebb and flow of the melodic line as glo­ri­ously spun out by Furtwän­gler, Völker, and Müller, one is also reminded of the sheer power a melody can have — and how often in Lohen­grin Wag­ner made his dra­matic and emo­tional points by com­pos­ing some of the most beau­ti­ful bel canto music ever written.

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the March 14, 1998 issue of Opera News magazine.

 The art at the top is The Arrival of Lohen­grin in Antwerp, a mural by August von Heckel (1882 – 83).


The Devil Gets His Due



The world of opera is gen­er­ously pop­u­lated by an assort­ment of unsa­vory, even nasty and some­times down­right evil char­ac­ters, some of whom employ magic and the super­nat­ural in their quest of wreak­ing havoc on the unsus­pect­ing. But even though opera as a genre does not flinch from explor­ing The Dark Side of life, there are remark­ably few operas in which the Devil him­self actu­ally appears onstage. Two of them — Gounod’s Faust and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress—enter the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera’s reper­toire this spring, offer­ing audi­ences the oppor­tu­nity to pon­der what would seem to be a conun­drum, Why is it that the attain­ment of our heart’s deep­est desire is only pos­si­ble by enter­ing a pact with the Devil which, inevitably, leads to our eter­nal damna­tion? Why does it seem that behind every delight and plea­sure, ret­ri­bu­tion lurks in one form or another?

Faust pre­miered in 1859 and quickly became so extra­or­di­nar­ily pop­u­lar as to almost be ubiq­ui­tous, even inau­gu­rat­ing the old Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House on Octo­ber 22. 1883. For sev­eral decades audi­ences could not get enough of watch­ing the aged philoso­pher Faust sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for a sec­ond chance at youth and the oppor­tu­nity to expe­ri­ence the bliss of desire. (In Goethe’s orig­i­nal, more pro­found telling of the story, Faust bar­gains not specif­i­cally for youth and young love but says,  “If to the moment I should say:/Abide, you are so fair – /Put me in fet­ters on that day,/I wish to per­ish then, I swear.” Per­haps Gounod’s libret­tists felt their audi­ence could more eas­ily relate to the desire for a sec­ond chance of youth and romance than to the more amor­phous quest for the sin­gle per­fect moment.)

A dev­il­ish Mar­cel Journet

The opera might be called Faust but the juici­est role is Méphistophélès who, sum­moned by Faust, makes his appear­ance to five for­tis­simo chords played by the entire orches­tra. “I am here. Is that so sur­pris­ing?” Méphistophélès asks the aston­ished Faust. “Does my appear­ance dis­please you?” And imme­di­ately the orches­tra begins giv­ing us clues about what kind of guy this par­tic­u­lar Devil is. His first ques­tions are all fol­lowed by four soft, quick notes from the flutes, bas­soons and fourth horn, accom­pa­nied by two eighth notes by the strings. The music is play­ful, ele­gant, slightly mock­ing, the essence of a man very much in con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion and thor­oughly enjoy­ing it.

It is true that Faust takes the ini­tia­tive by sum­mon­ing Méphistophélès, and it is Faust who asks what the price will be for the Devil work­ing his super­nat­ural pow­ers on the philosopher’s behalf. He does not go blindly into the deal with Satan, he knows exactly what the price will be before he signs away his soul. He is fully aware of the con­se­quences and even hes­i­tates at the cru­cial moment — Méphistophélès has to sum­mon a vision of Mar­guerite to nudge, or entice, Faust into the final step. But once Méphistophélès steps on stage, he dom­i­nates the action and delights in it, while seduc­ing us into enjoy­ing his delight.

Pol Plançon

There are basses who have tried to make Gounod’s Méphistophélès a car­i­ca­ture of loath­some evil, the vocal equiv­a­lent of the Bible’s descrip­tion of the Devil in I Peter 5:8 as being “like a roar­ing lion, [who] walketh about, seek­ing whom he may devour.” But how many peo­ple would will­ingly hang around a roar­ing lion set on devour­ing them? Far more entic­ing is the Apos­tle Paul’s ver­sion in II Corinthi­ans: “Satan him­self is trans­formed into an angle of light,” which is much closer to Gounod’s Devil. An “amal­gam of debonair grace and cyn­i­cal men­ace,” is the way critic Paul Jack­son summed up the role, and lis­ten­ing to record­ings of great Méphistophélès like bass Pol Plançon (who sang the role 85 times at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan between 1893 and 1908) one can under­stand why every­one is so taken in by the guy. A critic for The New York Times describes Plançon’s Méphistophélès as “a boule­vardier,” a man about town, the kind of guy Faust, actu­ally, would like to be in his sec­ond youth, which is why he leans on the Devil for help, advice and instruc­tions when it comes to woo­ing Marguerite.

This iden­ti­fi­ca­tion between the Devil and his vic­tim is even more closely drawn in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which pre­miered in 1951, almost a cen­tury after Gounod’s Faust. In the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury opera there is no magic potion, no overt sum­mon­ing of the Devil. Tom Rakewell merely says, “I wish I had money,” and instantly a stranger appears and informs the young man he has been left a for­tune by an uncle Rakewell never knew. Per­haps it is Rakewell’s unthink­ing youth which blinds him to the true iden­tity this mes­sen­ger, but Stravinsky’s libret­tists W. H. Auden and Chester Kall­man give man the name “Nick Shadow,” which leaves no doubt in the minds of the audi­ence as to the man’s iden­tity: “Old Nick” being one of the Devil’s many names, and “Shadow” being the dark side of every human being.

Those unpleas­ant and immoral aspects of our selves which we would like to pre­tend do not exist or have no effect on our lives — our infe­ri­or­i­ties, our unac­cept­able impulses, our shame­ful actions and wishes — this shad­owy side of our per­son­al­ity is dif­fi­cult and painful to admit,” writes Rob Hopcke in A Guided Tour of The Col­lected Works of  C. G. Jung.

The shadow is, in truth, a dev­il­ish form,” observes June Singer in Bound­aries of the Soul, “and just when you think you know who he is, he changes his dis­guise and appears from another direction.”

Igor Stravin­sky

Tom Rakewell, who has no desire to work for a liv­ing and plans to rely on the favor of For­tune, only has to express as wish and his shadow, Nick Shadow, grants it. Every wish appears, as if by magic, just by the wish­ing itself. But none of the wishes last, and Tom ends up dying insane in Bedlam.

Per­haps one of the rea­sons our delights fade, and some­times have unpleas­ant con­se­quences, is to be found in the root of the word itself. “Delight” comes from the same root as “to snare” or “to bind,” and is closely related to “a noose.” Our delights can hang us, and we do it to our­selves by remain­ing uncon­scious of the roots of our desires, even if we blame it all on the Devil.

In the first scene of  The Rake’s Progress, Nick Shadow thanks Rakewell for tak­ing him on as guide and says, “for mas­ter­less should I abide/Too long, I soon would die.” What a con­cept, that the Devil needs us or he dies? In the Epi­logue, Shadow explains, “Day in, day out, poor Shadow/Must do as he is bidden.”

Nick Shadow needs Tom Rakewell as much as Rakewell needs Shadow for the ful­fill­ment of his wishes. Méphistophélès needs Faust as much as Faust needs him. What a para­dox. Or is it?

If I can stay with my con­flict­ing impulses long enough, the two oppos­ing forces will teach each other some­thing and pro­duce an insight that serves them both,” notes Robert A. John­son in Own­ing Your Own Shadow. “This is not com­pro­mise but a depth of under­stand­ing that puts my life in per­spec­tive and allows me to know with cer­tainty what I should do. That cer­tainty is one of the most pre­cious qual­i­ties known to humankind.”

This arti­cle appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2003.

The paint­ing at the top of the arti­cle is Eugene Delacroix’s “Faust and Mephistophe­les,” 1826 – 27.






Mozart’s Die Enthührung aus dem Serail—The Abduc­tion from the Seraglio — was writ­ten dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly happy period in the composer’s life. In March 1781 he had been sum­moned to Vienna by his patron, the Arch­bishop of Salzburg, who was in res­i­dence for the cel­e­bra­tions sur­round­ing the acces­sion to the Haps­burg throne of Emperor Joseph II. Unfor­tu­nately, as a mem­ber of the Archbishop’s house­hold, Mozart was essen­tially a ser­vant, seated at the table below the valets but above the cooks, and had to ask per­mis­sion (which was often refused) to play con­certs to earn money on his own.

These insults were espe­cially galling, since in Munich, where his opera Idome­neo had been a suc­cess at its pre­mière only a few weeks before, Mozart had been accepted as an equal by the nobil­ity. Finally, the young com­poser had had enough. And on May 9 he asked for his release from the Archbishop’s ser­vice. He was refused, but the fol­low­ing month the com­poser was finally granted his free­dom (“with a kick on my arse…by order of our wor­thy Prince Arch­bishop,” Mozart reported).

Mozart about 1780

At the age of twenty-five, Mozart found him­self on his own, free to pur­sue his career as he saw fit. By all accounts he had landed in Vienna at just the right time. As Nicholas Till writes in Mozart and the Enlight­en­ment, “Under Joseph, for a few brief, fever­ish years, Vienna became the freest, most open, lib­eral and tol­er­ant city in Europe, guided by the pur­pose­ful vision and forth­right hand of the emperor him­self. Vienna also promised to become the seat of a renewed Ger­man cul­ture in which the­ater and opera played a cen­tral role.” In 1776 Joseph had suc­ceeded in estab­lish­ing a German-speaking National The­ater in Vienna, and two years later, a Ger­man opera.

Today’s opera-goers accept as a mat­ter of course the fact there are dif­fer­ent kinds of opera: Ital­ian opera, Ger­man opera, and French opera all sound dif­fer­ent from each oth­ers, yet all are an inte­gral part of the oper­atic world. When Mozart began writ­ing opera this was not the case. Opera pre­dom­i­nantly meant Ital­ian opera, and more often than not its hero was a cas­trato. Our idea of an unneutered male voice (whether tenor, bari­tone, or bass) being the hero of an opera was almost unheard of at the time. So when, in The Abduc­tion of the Seraglio, Mozart wrote the role of Bel­monte, the roman­tic lead­ing man, for a tenor, it was still a novel expe­ri­ence for his audience.

Only a few weeks after break­ing with the Arch­bishop, Mozart had been asked to write an opera — a Singspiel (lit­er­ally a song play, or a play with songs) — to a libretto by a pop­u­lar play­wright of the time, Got­tlieb Stephanie. The libretto was based on the play Bel­monte und Kon­staze by Christophe Friedrich Bret­zner. When Bret­zner dis­cov­ered his play had been used as the basis for an opera, he took out an adver­tise­ment in a Leipzig news­pa­per accus­ing Mozart of “abus­ing” the play and “solemnly protest­ing against this ille­gal inter­fer­ence.” Since copy­rights did not exist, there was lit­tle else Bret­zner could do, espe­cially since his play, appar­ently, was itself a close copy of an old Eng­lish pastiche.

At first Mozart and his libret­tist assumed their new work would be a part of the enter­tain­ment sur­round­ing the state visit of the Russ­ian Grand Duke Paul to Vienna in Sep­tem­ber 1781. (As things turned out, the opera was not pre­miered until July 16, 1782.)

Poster for the first performance

Mozart knew exactly what he wanted to do when he was writ­ing Abduc­tion: he wanted to write an opera that would please the Vien­nese pub­lic and place Mozart-the-opera-composer on equal foot­ing in their minds with Mozart-the-virtuoso-performer, this ensur­ing — among other things — finan­cial secu­rity and, pos­si­bly, even a court appoint­ment. “The Janis­sary cho­rus is all that can be desired,” he wrote his father. “That is, it is short, lively, and writ­ten to please the Vien­nese.” And to his sis­ter he con­fessed, “You know I am writ­ing an opera. Those parts which are already com­pleted have won extra­or­di­nary praise on all hands, for I know these people.”

Turk­ish” music was all the rage in Vienna at the time. Even though the army of the Turks had not threat­ened Vienna for a cen­tury, in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, the Turks (which stood for all of Islam) were still seen as “the enemy.”

Inter­est in Turk­ish music was not a sign of genial Aus­trian com­plai­sance toward a benign neigh­bor, as is often argued,” observes Nicholas Till. “It was expe­di­ent for Joseph to keep the Turks in the pub­lic eye as bogey­men in antic­i­pa­tion of the right moments to seize pos­ses­sion of one or the other chunks of ter­ri­tory which were crum­bling from the fringes of the Ottoman Empire.… If Joseph II was will­ing to coun­te­nance Turk­ish music, it must have been because it was con­sid­ered a just rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Turks them­selves, its clash­ing and jan­gling aptly sug­ges­tive of the sup­posed bar­barism of the ori­en­tal bogeyman.”

In Abduc­tion the Turks are rep­re­sented by two char­ac­ters, Pasha Selmin and his over­seer Osmin. Osmin’s unre­lent­ing cru­elty and anger (i.e., his bar­barism) are a con­stant source of humor, and though the Pasha is even­tu­ally revealed to be the embod­i­ment of the Enlight­en­ment, in the first act he does not hes­i­tate to threaten Kon­stanza with tor­ture if she will not yield to him. Today we real­ize this single-minded view of Islamic cul­ture is patron­iz­ing, at best, but it was a fact of eighteenth-century Europe. And given cur­rent events today, such a view is not nec­es­sar­ily for­eign to today’s audiences.

One of the things that hit me was that with the world the way it is right now, it would be a lit­tle embar­rass­ing to do a pro­duc­tion of Abduc­tion in which fig­ures like Osmin and even the Pasha were made into fig­ures of mock­ery,” says Edward Berke­ley, direc­tor of Aspen Opera The­ater Cen­ter. “It’s a won­der­ful opera because the score itself is amaz­ing, and the devel­op­ment of the char­ac­ters in the score goes far beyond what is in the text. So in our pro­duc­tion I’m try­ing to con­vey the sense that the opera is a satire, that it is a com­edy about people’s behav­ior and the mis­per­cep­tion of other peo­ple. It’s about cul­tural mis­un­der­stand­ing. I want to keep the humor, because it’s not a mean-spirited opera.” Berke­ley points out that much of Osmin’s rage stems from his pow­er­less­ness and desperation.

19th cen­tury engrav­ing of a Lon­don performance

Of the Euro­peans, the women, Kon­stanze and Blonde, are actu­ally stronger char­ac­ters than Bel­monte and Pedrillo — some­thing Mozart con­veys in the score when Bel­monte actu­ally fol­lows Konstanze’s lead, repeat­ing her vocal line as his own in one of their duets. But Mozart’s score also clearly shows the humor­ous side of Kon­stanze (“a bit of a drama queen,” Berke­ley points out) espe­cially in her Act Two aria, “Marten aller Arten,” where the almost non­stop embell­ish­ments to her vocal line clearly demon­strate her “over the top” nature.

In Bretzner’s play, Pasha Selim dis­cov­ers that Bel­monte is his own son, so the happy end­ing is a mat­ter of course. Mozart strength­ened the plot, and the char­ac­ter of the Pasha as well, by chang­ing the end­ing — per­haps to slightly chal­lenge his audience’s one-dimensional view of Islamic cul­ture. Mozart insisted that Bel­monte not be the Pasha’s son, but  the son of the Pasha’s most hated enemy. To free Bel­monte and the other Euro­peans under those con­di­tions is to demon­strate a nobil­ity that goes far beyond that shown by Belmonte’s father and, by exten­sion, Europeans.

Mozart had judged his audi­ence cor­rectly, and Abduc­tion’s pre­mier was an enor­mous suc­cess. “My opera was given yes­ter­day for the third time and won the great­est applause,” Mozart wrote his father glee­fully. “And again, in spite of the fright­ful heat, the the­ater was packed. It was to be given against next Fri­day, but I have protested against this, for I do not want it to become hack­neyed. I may say that peo­ple are absolutely infat­u­ated with this opera. Indeed, it does one good to win such approbation.”

On August 4, 1782, a month after the pre­mière of Mozart’s opera, he mar­ried his own Kon­stanze — Con­stanze Weber.


Abduc­tion Encore:

Mozart writes to his father, Leopold, about com­pos­ing his new opera:

Sep­tem­ber 26, 1781:

Lud­wig Fis­cher, the first Osmin

Osmin’s rage [in his Act One aria ‘Solche herge­laufne Laf­fen’] is ren­dered com­i­cal by the use of Turk­ish music… and as Osmin’s rage grad­u­ally increases, there comes (just when the aria seems to be at an end) the alle­gro assai, which is in a totally dif­fer­ent meter and in a dif­fer­ent key; this is bound to be very effec­tive. For just as a man in such a tow­er­ing rage over­steps all bounds of order, mod­er­a­tion, and pro­pri­ety and com­pletely for­gets him­self, so must the music, too, for­get itself. But since Pas­sions, whether vio­let or not, must never be expressed to the point of excit­ing dis­gust, and as music, even in the most ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tions, must never offend the ear, but must please the lis­tener, or in other words must never cease to be music, so I have not cho­sen a key for­eign to F (in which the aria is writ­ten) but one related to it — not the near­est, D minor, but the more remote A minor.

I have sent you only four­teen bars of the over­ture, which is very short with alter­nate fortes and pianos, the Turk­ish music always com­ing in the fortes. The over­ture mod­u­lates through dif­fer­ent keys, and I doubt whether any­one, even if his pre­vi­ous night has been a sleep­less one, could go to sleep over it.”

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the 2004 pro­gram book of the Aspen Opera The­ater.

The paint­ing at the top of the arti­cle is “The Recep­tion” by John Fred­er­ick Lewis (1873).

LA FORZA DEL DESTINO — Verdi’s Giant Canvas




It would be dif­fi­cult to find another major Verdi opera that has been so mis­treated — and so mis­un­der­stood — through the years as has La Forza del Des­tino. Not that long ago, entire scenes were either cut entirely, or trun­cated almost beyond recog­ni­tion. Some­times they were rearranged in an attempt to “improve” the sup­pos­edly inco­her­ent libretto. Char­ac­ters whom the com­poser admired were reduced to a few lines, or elim­i­nated entirely. Even though such once-routine man­gling of Forza is (thank­fully) rarely encoun­tered in major the­aters today, for many oper­a­go­ers the work remains more than slightly tainted by the idea that Verdi, some­how, got conned into writ­ing some won­der­ful music for an absurd, unwieldy drama that prob­a­bly should have been left undis­turbed on 19th–cen­tury library shelves.

That view, though com­mon, is regret­tably short­sighted. It is true that if ever a major Verdi work dis­re­garded the Aris­totelian dra­matic pre­cepts of unity of time, place and action it is La Forza del Des­tino. Aris­to­tle thought a drama should take place within a 24-hour period. A pro­duc­tion book from 1862, the year of Forza’s pre­mière, and thought to be the work of the opera’s libret­tist, Francesco Maria Piave, points out “about 18 months pass between the first and sec­ond acts; sev­eral years between the sec­ond and third; more than five years between the third and fourth.” Far from tak­ing place in a sin­gle loca­tion, Forza blithely trav­els through Spain and Italy, encom­pass­ing numer­ous set­tings such as aris­to­cratic homes, tacky inns, bat­tle­fields, wood­lands, a monastery and a cave in the side of a moun­tain. And as for stick­ing with one cen­tral story and elim­i­nat­ing any action not rel­e­vant to the plot — well, that’s the antithe­sis of Forza’s drama.

But far from being the major weak­ness of Forza, the great sprawl­ing nature of the libretto with its cast of hun­dreds and improb­a­ble dra­matic coin­ci­dences is — in fact — pre­cisely its strongest point. In Forza Verdi paints on a gigan­tic can­vas, telling the story of human­ity itself. Scenes of aris­to­cratic honor, all-consuming love and wrench­ing pri­vate anguish are cheeky by jowl with scenes of squab­bling peas­ants and drunken soldiers.

Some writ­ers have com­pared the vast sweep of Forza with Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelun­gen. Per­haps the best descrip­tion, how­ever, is that La Forza del Des­tino is Shake­spearean. In fact, William Weaver has termed it “Verdi’s most Shake­spearean opera. Shake­spearean, that is, in Verdi’s sense: a work of great vari­ety, vast scope, jux­ta­pos­ing comic and tragic, employ­ing a num­ber of unusual char­ac­ters, all sharply defined, even if only briefly seen and heard. Though the opera is flawed (as Verdi him­self real­ized), it is per­haps Verdi’s bold­est attempt to por­tray an entire, com­plex, con­tra­dic­tory world.”

Verdi in Rus­sia for FORZA’s première.

Shake­speare was a drama­tist Verdi both loved and admired. He kept Ital­ian trans­la­tions of Shakespeare’s plays beside his bed, and the high­est com­pli­ment he could pay a char­ac­ter was that it was “wor­thy of Shake­speare.” When he wrote La Forza del Des­tino, his first opera based on a Shake­speare play—Mac­beth—was over a decade old. His two final mas­ter­pieces, both drawn from Shake­speare—Otello and Fal­staff—were decades in the future. His most recent opera, Un Ballo in Maschera, had been a suc­cess at its pre­mier in Rome in 1859. It had brought to a close an aston­ish­ing decade which was ush­ered in by Verdi’s remark­able trio of Rigo­letto, Il Trova­tore, and La Travi­ata; found him writ­ing his first French grand opera Les Vêpres Sicilennes; then return­ing to Venice (scene of the pre­miers of Rigo­letto and Travi­ata) with Simon Boc­cane­gra in 1857.

Verdi was the undis­puted lead­ing com­poser of Ital­ian opera of the day. He had shown he was a mas­ter of the bel canto tra­di­tion that he was remold­ing in new ways to express char­ac­ter and drama with increased vivid­ness and truth. In short, Verdi was at the height of his pow­ers thus far and not at all inclined to sim­ply com­pose for the sake of com­pos­ing.  Instead, after Ballo’s pre­mier, Verdi essen­tially retired from the the­ater, turn­ing down numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties to write new operas in favor of ful­fill­ing his duties as a (reluc­tant) mem­ber of Italy’s new par­lia­ment and liv­ing the life of a coun­try farmer, mak­ing repairs on his prop­erty and dis­cour­ag­ing visitors.

Under these cir­cum­stances, it would be absurd to think Verdi was some­how fina­gled into set­ting a drama with which he was not fully in sym­pa­thy. Verdi explained part of the attrac­tion the sub­ject had for him in a let­ter: “The play is pow­er­ful, unusual and extremely vast. I like it immensely.” But just because it offered a vast panorama for Verdi does not mean he was care­less about the con­struc­tion of the libretto. Far from it. He harangued Piave repeat­edly, empha­siz­ing, “The style must be tight­ened up. The poetry can and must say all that the prose says, and in half the words.”

Libret­tist Piave

By con­ven­tional stan­dards it could, indeed, seem to be some­thing of a prob­lem to have a hero­ine, Leonora, with whom the audi­ence falls in love in the open­ing scene, only to have her dis­ap­pear at the end of act two and not reap­pear until the opera’s last scene. But Leonora is not the sub­ject of the opera. Nei­ther is her lover, Don Alvaro, though the Span­ish play by Angel de Saave­dra, Duke of Rivas, on which the opera is based is enti­tled Don Alvaro, o La Fuerza del sino. Instead. Verdi took the play’s sub­ti­tle and called his opera La Forza del Des­tino. The Force of Des­tiny. And to empha­size his opera is not only about the tra­vails of the Cala­trava fam­ily, he bor­rowed a scene from Schiller’s Wal­len­steins Lager which adds even more to the already bub­bling mix of gyp­sies, sol­diers, dis­rep­utable fri­ars and peddlers.

Verdi’s opera is not about indi­vid­ual char­ac­ters, but about the way these char­ac­ters react to the work­ings of fate, or des­tiny. The cen­tral char­ac­ter is fate itself, and the way it affects all seg­ments of soci­ety, from the high­est to the low­est. And des­tiny, by its very nature, can­not be con­fined to a nice tidy set of uni­ties. Des­tiny runs its own course.

Which is one rea­son Verdi empha­sized the impor­tance of char­ac­ters we some­times (mis­tak­enly) regard as “minor.” “Don’t for­get you need three artists who are com­pletely at ease on stage to do Preziosilla, Meli­tone and Tra­buco,” Verdi wrote to his pub­lisher. “Their scenes are com­edy, pure com­edy. There­fore good dic­tion and an easy stage man­ner. See to that.”

And that sug­gests another rea­son we are per­haps a bit uncom­fort­able with La Forza del Des­tino: its assump­tion of the cen­tral role of fate or des­tiny in human exis­tence.  “Art,” W. H. Auden once observed, “is not Magic, i.e., a means by which the artist com­mu­ni­cates or arouses his feel­ings in oth­ers, but a mir­ror in which they may become con­scious of what their own feel­ings really are: its proper effect, in fact, is disenchanting.”

Our soci­ety preaches an indi­vid­ual is respon­si­ble for the out­come of his or her own life. If you really work hard, you’ll be rewarded. If you sac­ri­fice plea­sure now, you’ll reap div­i­dends later on.  Yet, on the bound­aries of our lives — usu­ally pushed away from our daily rou­tines — we all know there are excep­tions. From great nat­ural dis­as­ters like Hur­ri­cane Kat­rina to doing some­thing noble that back­fires and brings calamity.  In act one of Forza Don Alvaro does some­thing noble. He sur­ren­ders to Leonora’s father by throw­ing down his pis­tol, only to have it acci­den­tally go off, kill the Mar­quis di Cala­trava, and set in motion a cycle of vengeance, death and grief that lasts for years.

A leg­endary per­for­mance of FORZA.

Oh please!” groans the mod­ern oper­a­goer. “That is so unre­al­is­tic.” But is it? Acci­den­tal deaths (some from gun shots) are so com­mon we sel­dom bother to trace their effects on the fam­i­lies involved. And in a larger sense, we all know sto­ries about a per­son who is caught in traf­fic, thus miss­ing a flight, only to not be on board an air­plane that crashes. Or the reverse. How many of us, years later, are so thank­ful we didn’t get a job we were des­per­ate for at the time; or who are annoyed we’ve got­ten lost in an unfa­mil­iar city, only to turn the cor­ner and meet a per­son who will bless our lives for years.

This qual­ity is depicted in the tarot by the Wheel of For­tune, num­ber 10 of the major arcane. “The Wheel does not become vis­i­ble until we step away from it,” writes Rachel Pol­lack in Seventy-eight Degrees of Wis­dom, Part I.  “When we are involved in it, we see only the events imme­di­ately before and behind us; the daily con­cerns our egos find so impor­tant. When we with­draw we can see the whole pat­tern. Psy­cho­log­i­cally we can view this vision as an assess­ment a per­son makes of where his or her life has gone and where it is going. On a deeper level, the vision remains mys­te­ri­ous and sym­bolic. We can see what we have made of our par­tic­u­lar lives, but fate remains a mys­tery.… The impor­tant thing about change is our reac­tion [to it]. Do we use it as an oppor­tu­nity and find some mean­ing and value in it? The end of a love affair, despite its pain, can give greater self-knowledge. It can open the way to a new awareness.”

This is not the sub­ject mat­ter we usu­ally asso­ciate with an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. But Julian Bud­den got it exactly right when he said Forza was “an opera whose only fault is that it is too rich in ideas. It is a fault on the right side.”

This arti­cle orig­i­nal appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill Feb­ru­ary 2006.




Through­out his long life, Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) seemed to have a gut instinct about exactly which char­ac­ter or dra­matic sit­u­a­tion would best suit his opera-composing abil­i­ties. So it is not sur­pris­ing that when he read Vic­tor Hugo’s play, Le roi s’amuse (The king’s amuse­ment), Verdi real­ized its aston­ish­ing poten­tial. The dis­cov­ery of a play that fired his imag­i­na­tion could not have come at a bet­ter time, since he had just been com­mis­sioned by Teatro la Fenice in Venice to write an opera to be pre­miered early in 1851.

In April 1850 Verdi wrote his libret­tist, Fran­cisco Maria Piave (1810 – 1876): “I have in mind a sub­ject that would be one of the great­est cre­ations of the mod­ern the­ater if the police will only allow it. Who knows? They allowed Ernani, they might even allow us to do this and at least there are no con­spir­a­cies in it. Have a try! The sub­ject is grand, immense and there’s a char­ac­ter in it who is one of the great­est cre­ations that the the­ater of all coun­tries and all times can boast. The sub­ject is Le roi s’amuse and the char­ac­ter I’m speak­ing about is Triboulet.

PS: As soon as you get this let­ter, put on your skates; run about the city and find some­one of influ­ence to get us per­mis­sion to do Le roi s’amuse. Don’t go to sleep; give your­self a good shake; do it at once. I shall expect you at Bus­seto [Verdi’s home], but not now, after they’ve agreed to the subject.”

The let­ter is the first time Verdi men­tions his desire to write what would become Rigo­letto—one of the great­est of all Ital­ian operas — and it is an extremely telling let­ter in many ways. First of all, no sooner does Verdi express enthu­si­asm for the sub­ject than he adds, “if the police will allow it.” Verdi knew exactly what he would be up against, and so he deftly shifted the almost impos­si­ble task of slip­ping the sub­ject mat­ter past the cen­sor onto the shoul­ders of his poor librettist.

Vic­tor Hugo in 1853

Vic­tor Hugo’s play had been given in Paris in Novem­ber 1832 when it was sus­pended by the gov­ern­ment after a sin­gle per­for­mance. Hugo pleaded his case before the Tri­bunal de Com­merce but to no avail. The play was pub­lished, but it was not per­formed again in Paris until 1882 — a fact that dou­bly dis­pleased the play­wright since Verdi’s opera, based on the play, was given over 100 times dur­ing its first sea­son in the very city that con­tin­ued to ban Le roi s’amuse.

At the time, Venice and much of north­ern Italy was in the hands of the Aus­tri­ans, who were deeply fear­ful of the attempts to unify Italy and were well aware of Verdi’s patri­otic stance. His very name had become an ana­gram, an open secret used to inflame the pub­lic toward inde­pen­dence and uni­fi­ca­tion. “Viva VERDI” was scrawled on walls, painted on ban­ners, shouted by crowds — osten­si­bly in honor of the increas­ingly pop­u­lar com­poser. But “VERDI” also stood for Vitto­rio Emmanuele, Re dItalia (Vit­to­rio Emmanuel, King of Italy, mean­ing a free, uni­fied Italy, not just King of Sar­dinia as he was at the time). Obvi­ously any­thing that might be inflam­ma­tory, as defined by the increas­ingly uneasy occu­py­ing Aus­tri­ans, would be banned.

Also telling in that first let­ter to Piave on the sub­ject of their new opera was Verdi’s sin­gling out the char­ac­ter of Tri­boulet, who even­tu­ally would be named Rigo­letto. In another let­ter Verdi referred to Tri­boulet as “a cre­ation wor­thy of Shake­speare,” which was the high­est praise Verdi could give.

Verdi had first used Piave as a libret­tist on Ernani, which pre­miered in Venice in 1844, and col­lab­o­rated with him reg­u­larly there­after. Piave sup­plied the com­poser with ten libret­tos in all, includ­ing Mac­beth, Travi­ata, Simon Boc­cane­gra and La forza del des­tino, in addi­tion to Rigo­letto. If Piave was not a par­tic­u­larly dis­tin­guished writer on his own, he took direc­tion well, put up with Verdi’s almost con­stant abuse, was to all accounts extra­or­di­nar­ily charm­ing, and had numer­ous influ­en­tial friends in high places. He was promptly assured there would be no dif­fi­culty with La Fenice pre­sent­ing an opera based on Le roi s’amuse, so the two men set to work.

Libret­tist Piave

But of course there would be dif­fi­culty — a great deal of it. In the play the vil­lain is a king, Fran­cis I of France, whose licen­tious­ness is plainly depicted, and the hero is a hunch­back com­moner, a jester in the court. Fur­ther­more, in the final scene a corpse is dis­played on stage in a sack. Both in France and Ger­many the play was derided for its “obscen­ity.” The Aus­trian cen­sors were so offended by Piave’s libretto they sim­ply washed their hands of the whole mat­ter in a let­ter to the direc­tors of La Fenice: “His Excel­lency the Mil­i­tary Gov­er­nor Cheva­lier Gorzkowski…directs me to com­mu­ni­cate to you his pro­found regret that the poet Piave and the cel­e­brated mae­stro Verdi should not have cho­sen a more wor­thy vehi­cle to dis­play their tal­ents than the revolt­ing immoral­ity and obscene triv­i­al­ity of the libretto of La maledi­zione [as the opera was then called].

His above-mentioned Excel­lency has decided the per­for­mance shall be absolutely for­bid­den, and wishes me at the same time to request you not make fur­ther inquiries in the matter.”

Verdi, how­ever, was not about to with­draw the project. He answered the objec­tions of the Aus­trian over­lords one by one, finally respond­ing to the desire that Tri­boulet should not be ugly or hunchbacked.

A hunch­back who sings? Why not?” Verdi wrote to the the­ater direc­tors. “Will it be effec­tive? I don’t know; but if I don’t know, nei­ther, I repeat, does the per­son who sug­gested the change. To me there is some­thing really fine in rep­re­sent­ing on stage this char­ac­ter out­wardly so ugly and ridicu­lous, inwardly so impas­sioned and full of love. I chose the sub­ject pre­cisely because of those qual­i­ties, and if these orig­i­nal fea­tures are removed I can­not write the music.…I tell you frankly that, good or bad, my music is not just writ­ten casu­ally for any sit­u­a­tion; I try to give it a char­ac­ter appro­pri­ate to the drama.”

Giuseppe Bertoja’s pre­mière stage set for the sec­ond scene.

In Rigo­letto Verdi did just that — he wrote pow­er­ful, evoca­tive music that describes each of the char­ac­ters so per­fectly it would be laugh­able to sug­gest the same music be sung by the watered-down, col­or­less char­ac­ters sug­gested by the cen­sors. Finally Verdi, Piave, and the La Fenice man­age­ment reached a com­pro­mise with the cen­sors, but all of the key dra­matic points from Le roi s’amuse made it into Rigo­letto. In the title char­ac­ter, Verdi wrote what is prob­a­bly the great­est part ever writ­ten for a high bari­tone — an aston­ish­ing tour de force for a singing actor who can con­vey all the emo­tional nuances of the music.

Some writ­ers have com­pared Verdi’s Rigo­letto to Beethoven’s Third Sym­phony — with it, the com­poser reached a new level of mas­tery, broke new ground in his art form, and after it noth­ing was ever the same. In Rigo­letto Verdi took the exist­ing forms of Ital­ian bel canto opera as used by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, and molded them into a new, more imme­di­ately and pow­er­ful music drama, which he would con­tinue to expand for the rest of his life.

Tra­di­tion­ally an Ital­ian opera would open with a cho­rus, intro­duc­ing one of the main char­ac­ters who would then sing a for­mal aria, fre­quently in two parts, first a slow cantabile, then a faster cabaletta. But con­sider how Verdi adapted this form in Rigo­letto’s open­ing scene. It would have been easy to fol­low the tra­di­tion. The open­ing scene is a party; the cho­rus could have been the usual exten­sive one, prais­ing their host the Duke, who would respond with the usual for­mal two-part aria. It would work per­fectly with the story.

Poster for the very first performance.

Instead, Verdi fol­lows his intensely dra­matic, extremely short pre­lude (in which trum­pets and trom­bones con­stantly reit­er­ate the dotted-note rhythm and notes Rigo­letto will use through­out the opera with the phrase “Quel vec­chio male­di­ami!” That old man cursed me!) with an off-stage band play­ing some of the most banal “cheer­ful” music pos­si­ble. Instead of open­ing with the cho­rus (which is on stage), we get snip­pets of brief con­ver­sa­tion by a vari­ety of char­ac­ters that will only make sense in hindsight.

In this open­ing scene Verdi antic­i­pates the cin­ema by more than half a cen­tury. He (the cam­era) is walk­ing us through the party, giv­ing us an overview while let­ting us over­hear numer­ous bits of con­ver­sa­tion. When Verdi wants to let us know some­thing is really impor­tant, he switches from the off-stage banda to using the orches­tra in the pit (as in a cam­era close-up). As he does for the Duke’s first aria, “Questa o quello.” Yes, it is the Duke’s first aria, but far from being the usual two-part for­mal aria Verdi gives the Duke a breezy dance tune (in the score it is labeled “Bal­lata”). It fits per­fectly with the dra­matic sit­u­a­tion, gives us insight into the Duke him­self, and last barely two min­utes; then the orches­tra yields to a string banda on stage and  the flirt­ing — the con­ver­sa­tion that sets up the entire opera — con­tin­ues. It is all so con­cise that the entire whirl­wind open­ing scene lasts barely fif­teen minutes.

Another way Verdi reworked the forms of Ital­ian opera, was the way he repeat­edly inter­rupts a scene to give the audi­ence a fore­taste of what’s to come. In the open­ing scene, the cho­rus is inter­rupted by Monterone’s appear­ance and curse, which abruptly changes the tone of the scene — thus height­en­ing the cru­cial point of the drama. In the sec­ond scene, the duet between Rigo­letto and Gilda is inter­rupted by the furtive arrival of the Duke, who, in turn, is inter­rupted in his woo­ing of Gilda by a noise out­side which turns out to be the foot­steps of the courtiers who have come to abduct Gilda. Her sin­gle aria is inter­rupted by their com­ments, which serve to tighten the drama. All this over­lap­ping of scenes and char­ac­ters gives a sense of urgency and propul­sive­ness to the storytelling.

Felice Varesi, the first Rigoletto

In was in Rigo­letto that Verdi set the stan­dard in writ­ing an exten­sive ensem­ble (the famous Quar­tet), which serves not only the for­mal, tech­ni­cal require­ments of an iso­lated set piece of music, but also imparts addi­tional infor­ma­tion about all the char­ac­ters involved and fur­thers the drama — all at the same time. Rather than hav­ing each of the char­ac­ters sing the same musi­cal phrase in turn, and then work­ing it together har­mon­i­cally (as com­posers had tended to do before), Verdi assigns each of the four char­ac­ters a dis­tinct melody and rhythm uniquely his or her own — that only that char­ac­ter could sing at that point in the drama. For exam­ple, the Duke’s insou­ciant woo­ing of Mad­dalena with his seduc­tive, lyric melody to the words “Bella figlia dell’amore” (Beau­ti­ful daugh­ter of love), which oozes charm and pheromones equally; her answer in scam­per­ing stac­cato six­teenth notes that elude the Duke musi­cally as she deftly eludes his grop­ing hands on stage; Gilda’s descend­ing melodic line that con­stantly droops, sighs, breaks into sobs, and Rigoletto’s broad, com­pas­sion­ate sup­port­ing of Gilda. Some­how Verdi mirac­u­lously turns all these dis­parate ele­ments into a proper quar­tet of aston­ish­ing beauty, even ele­gance with­out rob­bing the num­ber of any of its con­sid­er­able dra­matic and emo­tional impact.

Add to this Verdi’s grow­ing facil­ity at orches­tra­tion and the numer­ous ways he uses the orches­tra to give emo­tional color to a char­ac­ter of a scene. For instance, his use of flutes when Rigo­letto sud­denly thinks of Gilda dur­ing “Pari siamo,” or when she is on stage, to con­vey her inno­cence and purity; or the way he slowly builds the storm in the last act, the utter con­vinc­ing fury of its height, and then the way it takes most of the rest of the act to die away.

After Rigo­letto, Verdi gave us only mas­ter­pieces (the sin­gle excep­tion being Aroldo, itself a rework­ing of the ear­lier Stiffe­lio) — one after another until his mirac­u­lous Fal­staff writ­ten at the age of almost eighty. As Julian Bud­den writes in his mon­u­men­tal study of Verdi’s operas: “Just after 1850, at the age of thirty-eight, Verdi closed the door on a period of Ital­ian opera with Rigo­letto. The so-called ottocènto in music was fin­ished. Verdi con­tin­ued to draw on cer­tain of its forms for the next few opera, but in a totally new spirit.”


Rigo­letto Extra:

The Duke’s Famous Aria

Though Rigo­letto, like most Verdi opera, is brim­ming with melody, one catchy tune per­sis­tently stands out from all the oth­ers: “La donna è mobile” (Woman is fickle). It’s one of the most famous tenor arias ever writ­ten and is sung by the lib­er­tine Duke in the opera’s last act, in which its slightly tawdry — but utterly irre­sistible — nature is sheer genius on Verdi’s part. There is noth­ing the least bit aris­to­cratic about it (unlike the Duke’s Act One aria, “Questa o quella.”) In the last act the Duke is slum­ming, in dis­guise, set­tling in for an evening of drink­ing and whor­ing, but even so, his irre­press­ible charm pre­vails, per­fectly cap­tured in this catchy, but almost plebian tune in three-quarter (waltz) time.

Verdi cer­tainly knew how unfor­get­table this effer­ves­cent song was, and he was con­cerned that it might become known before the opera’s pre­mier in Venice on March 11, 1851. Leg­end has it that to avoid the singers or other mem­bers of the com­pany whistling or hum­ming the melody out­side the the­ater before open­ing night (thus dilut­ing the shock of the audi­ence har­ing it for the first time in the con­text of the drama), he delayed giv­ing the music to the tenor until the dress rehearsal.

This seems a bit unlikely since one of the most jar­ring uses of the tune in when the tenor reprises it at the end, as Rigo­letto stands over the sack he believes con­tains the Duke’s body. It is unlikely Verdi would chance ruin­ing such a hor­ri­fy­ing coup de théâtre by only hav­ing rehearsed the moment once. But it is quite pos­si­ble the com­poser delayed giv­ing the tenor the music to “La donna è mobile” until well into the rehearsal process so it would still be fresh on open­ing night.

And one can eas­ily believe the other sto­ries about the aria, that the first audi­ence exited La Fenice hum­ming and whistling the new hit tune. After all, audi­ences still do that over 150 years later.

This arti­cle first appeared in the 2004 pro­gram book for the Aspen Opera Theater.

The photo at the top of the page is the great Tito Gobbi as Rigo­letto, one of his most famous roles.

Francis Poulenc — Dialogue des Carmélites

KEY ART guillotine


Who could have pre­dicted that one of the very few operas writ­ten after 1950 to suc­cess­fully enter the inter­na­tional reper­toire, would be an opera about a group of nuns and their mar­tyr­dom dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion? Yet, from its pre­mière at La Scala (in Ital­ian) on Jan­u­ary 26, 1957 Dia­logues des Car­mélites quickly made its way through the major opera the­aters — Paris, San Fran­cisco, Covent Gar­den, Vienna — and it remains a sta­ple of the reper­toire, grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity with the pas­sage of time.

And who would have thought such an opera would be writ­ten by Fran­cis Poulenc, a com­poser bet­ter known at the time as “the play­boy com­poser,” a mem­ber of the cir­cle of com­posers dubbed Les Six, whose music often sparkled with wit, charm and insou­ciance, and who delighted in regal­ing Parisian soci­ety with tales of his homo­sex­ual affairs?

Poulenc was born into a rather wealthy Parisian fam­ily on Jan­u­ary 7, 1899. (The money came from a fam­ily phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany that would later become part of the giant Rhôné-Poulenc chem­i­cal firm.) His first piano lessons were from his mother, and at the age of six­teen he began study­ing with the famous pianist Ricardo Viñes, a friend of Debussy and Ravel, who had pre­miered many of their works in his recitals.

By the time young Fran­cis began work­ing with Viñes, he had already devel­oped what his father called “odd tastes” in music. Thanks to an insa­tiable appetite for music, and the where­withal to buy scores, he was famil­iar with works by Stravin­sky (he had attended per­for­mances of The Rite of Spring in 1914 at the Casino de Paris), Bartók and Schoen­berg, to say noth­ing of the more tra­di­tional com­posers. His life­long eclec­tic taste in music was care­fully nur­tured by his mother’s brother, “Uncle Papoum,” a bach­e­lor who loved every­thing from opera to café music, was a habitué of the the­ater, had known Toulouse-Lautrec and was equally at home in Parisian soci­ety — and who was delighted to intro­duce his young nephew Fran­cis to all of it.

Debonair Fran­cis Poulenc

When Poulenc attempted to study at the Paris Con­ser­va­tory he was told, “Your work stinks! I see you’re a fol­lower of the Stravin­sky and Satie gang. Well, good­bye!” But when he per­formed the offend­ing piece, Rap­sodie nègre, at a con­cert in 1917, it was admired, and he became seri­ous about his com­pos­ing. How­ever, it was not until 1944, hav­ing writ­ten a wide vari­ety of music, that Poulenc turned to opera for the first time. The result was Les mamelles de Tirésias, an opéra bouffe, based on the play by sur­re­al­ist poet Guil­laume Apol­li­naire, whose works had also inspired some of Poulenc’s songs.

Mamelles de Tirésias is utterly enchant­ing, delight­ful non­sense, Parisian — and Poulenc — to the core, by turns witty and silly, abound­ing with melody, “odd” in har­mony and instru­men­tal col­ors that are per­fect for the moment. Through­out it is per­me­ated with an utter love of life itself. It could not be more oppo­site to his next opera, Car­mélites.

In the early 1950s (sur­pris­ingly, the exact date seems to be open to ques­tion), Poulenc was approached by the Ital­ian music pub­lish­ing house Ricordi about a com­mis­sion for La Scala. Ini­tially Ricordi was inter­ested in a bal­let, pos­si­bly on the sub­ject of Saint Mar­garita of Cor­tona. Though Poulenc was inter­ested in writ­ing a work for La Scala, he could not work up enthu­si­asm for the bal­let. But while on a con­cert tour of Italy, he met with the direc­tor of Ricordi, Guido Val­carenghi, and sug­gested an opera instead of a bal­let. Val­carn­nghi sug­gested the play Dia­logues des Car­mélites by George Bernanos.

Poulenc had already seen the play — twice — but he had never thought about set­ting it to music. “I bought the book and decided to reread it,” he later wrote. “For that, I sat down at the out­doors café Tre Scalini on the Piazza Navone. It was ten in the morn­ing. At noon I was still there, hav­ing con­sumed a cof­fee, an ice cream, an orange juice, and a bot­tle of Fuggi min­eral water to jus­tify my pro­longed pres­ence. At twelve-thirty I was drunk with enthu­si­asm but the final ques­tion remained — would I find the music for such a text? I opened by chance the book and forced myself instantly to trans­late into music the first sen­tences I read.…As incred­i­ble as it may seem, I imme­di­ately found the melodic line. Des­tiny had decided.” Des­tiny might have inspired Poulenc that morn­ing in a Roman café, but the com­po­si­tion of the whole opera would drag on for some time and take an enor­mous toll on the composer’s men­tal as well as phys­i­cal health.

Georges Bernanos

The story of a group of nuns who are guil­lotines dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion was orig­i­nally told by one of the sur­viv­ing nuns in her mem­oir, which then served as the basis for a novel Die let­zte am Schafott (The Last to the Scaf­fold) by Gertrud von le Fort, who seems to have given her own name to the main char­ac­ter, Blanche del la Force. The novel, in turn, was adapted as a screen­play (and dra­matic play) by Georges Bernanos. Unfor­tu­nately, the adap­ta­tion rights had been sold to Emmet Lav­ery, and it was only after lengthy nego­ti­a­tions that he agreed to allow Poulenc to set the work to music, as long as Lavery’s name appeared on every pro­gram and score of Poulenc’s opera — which it does.

In August 1953 Poulenc began work­ing seri­ously on Car­mélites and soon found that immers­ing him­self in the emo­tional world of his char­ac­ters was aggra­vat­ing his own hypochon­dria. He became con­vinced that he had stom­ach can­cer, and it was only with dif­fi­cultly that his doc­tors con­vinced him all the tests were neg­a­tive. In 1954 he went through what was described as “six weeks of anx­ious near-madness” before recov­er­ing enough to go on tour with bari­tone Pierre Bernac. But in Novem­ber the com­poser had to break off the tour and return to Paris to be admit­ted to a clinic for a three-week cure for his insom­nia. In a bizarre twist of fate, Poulenc’s younger lover, Lucien Rou­bert, came down with pleurisy in April 1955 as Poulenc began near­ing the end of his new opera. That August as Poulenc fin­ished the work, he later recalled telling his cook, “I have fin­ished: Mon­sieur Lucien will die now.” That’s exactly what happened.

Dia­logues des Car­mélites is in three acts, divided into twelve scenes and five inter­ludes with nine brief pieces of orches­tral music con­nect­ing them. Some of the indi­vid­ual scenes only last a few min­utes, and they can seem so slight at the time — one might almost say incon­se­quen­tial — one might won­der, “Why did Poulenc bother to include that scene?” A good exam­ple is the scene between Blanche and Con­stance where they dis­cuss death and its impli­ca­tions. As Denise Duvall, for whom Poulenc wrote the part of Blanche, observed: “How dif­fi­cult it is to sing it the way Poulenc wanted, mak­ing it impor­tant and at the same time not overtly so. It is the sort of scene the pub­lic must remem­ber later, but not be par­tic­u­larly struck by while it is tak­ing place.”

The score of Car­mélites is almost painted. Poulenc builds it up in a series of deft, brief tonal brush strokes, as an artist would con­struct an Impres­sion­ist paint­ing, with the suc­ces­sion of one brief scene after another. As the opera grad­u­ally unfolds, the drama is built almost imper­cep­ti­bly, layer upon layer.

Poulenc with his Blanche, Denise Duval

There are few lush melodies in Car­mélites, few exam­ples of the rich orches­tral tex­tures of which Poulenc was capa­ble. The sweet­est music often goes to the nuns as they sing their reli­gious ser­vices. But what Poulenc does so superbly is to set the words of the libretto with extra­or­di­nary clar­ity in a way to under­score their drama musi­cally. As Duval pointed out, “Poulenc was so attached to the beau­ti­ful text that he wanted the orches­tra to be ever so light, so every word sung could be heard. The dif­fi­culty in singing Blanche is over­whelm­ing, for it must remain within a total purity of line, almost a trans­parency. And one must be made of stone is one is not over­come by emotion.”

Poulenc’s use of music goes far beyond mere word set­ting in Car­mélites. His score is a mar­vel of con­vey­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal nuances of the drama and how his char­ac­ters feel about their sit­u­a­tion.  One exam­ple is the orches­tral music that always appears around Blanche’s father. Aside from the nuns’ choral music, this is the most lux­u­ri­ous music in the opera. It is music one could com­fort­ably sink into, and wrap around one­self. (And, as such, it is starkly dif­fer­ent from most of the rest of the opera which often involves ter­ror and anx­i­ety of one kind or another.) The music tells us that Blanche feels safe and secure, loved and pam­pered by her father in a unique way. Every time her father or her home is men­tioned in the opera (as when her brother vis­its her in Act II), this music reap­pears briefly, giv­ing that unique emo­tional tinge to the scene. When Blanche tells her brother “I am now a daugh­ter of God,” the orches­tra lets us know that Blanche means this lit­er­ally, because the music has the same color as the music for her father the Mar­quis. Sim­i­larly, when Blanche expresses her con­cern that the Chap­lain must flee, the Chaplain’s music tells us Blanche sees him as a father fig­ure, a source of author­ity, but also a source of guid­ance and comfort.

This is, per­haps, a clue to why an opera about a group of nuns has become so pop­u­lar with con­tem­po­rary audi­ences. Aside from the reli­gious choral music Poulenc wrote for the nuns, he did not write music for nuns, but for women who hap­pened to be nuns. Poulenc brings each of the major char­ac­ters to life in her own unique way, not as a nun, but as a human being, with pri­vate emo­tions and fears who must meet her des­tiny in her own way.

What intrigues us about Blanche is not her voca­tion, but Blanche her­self. How does a neu­rotic, almost hys­ter­i­cal young woman, in the grip of a life and death sit­u­a­tion, find the courage — and the grace — to do what she knows she must do?

Though Poulenc was a worldly man (and one who thor­oughly enjoyed his world­li­ness), he had a deep, intro­spec­tive side that could express itself through reli­gion. A cou­ple of years before writ­ing Car­mélites Poulenc com­posed his Sta­bat Mater, and wrote to a friend, “By the way, you know that I am as sin­cere in my faith, with­out any mes­sianic scream­ings, as I am in my Parisian sexuality…My musi­cal tone is spon­ta­neous, and in any case, I think, truly personal.”

Per­haps that is why the pub­lic responds to Car­mélites so read­ily. It is the composer’s own per­sonal wrestling with death, with anx­i­ety, with the desire to truly believe his per­sonal reli­gion — expressed through Blanche and the other nuns as they are faced with their own mor­tal­ity — that moves us so.  It is the hon­esty and courage of this quest that inspires us in the audi­ence, what­ever our per­sonal reli­gious views. Because, after all, we, too, face the same Unknown.

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the 2001 Aspen Opera The­atre pro­gram book.



Christoph Willibald Gluck — ORFEO ED EURIDICE



I agree with you that of all my com­po­si­tions Orphée is the only accept­able one. I ask for­give­ness of the god of taste for hav­ing deaf­ened my audi­ence with my other operas.”

—Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 – 1787) writ­ing to Jean François de la Harpe in 1777


His­tory often dis­agrees with a composer’s assess­ment of his own out­put. And it’s quite pos­si­ble that Gluck, who was writ­ing to a pub­lic enemy of his work, was delib­er­ately being at least a bit face­tious in den­i­grat­ing his operas such as Alceste and Iphigénie en Aulide. But what is inter­est­ing about his state­ment is the rev­e­la­tion that even some­one who was firmly in an oppos­ing artis­tic camp could not help but admire Gluck’s opera on the myth of Orpheus.

It’s prob­a­bly not going too far to say that Orpheus (or Orfeo, or Orphée) was the god­fa­ther of opera itself. Accord­ing to Greek and Roman writ­ers, he was the son of one of the Muses and a Thra­cian prince, which makes him more than mor­tal, but less than a god. From his Muse mother he received the gift of music and became so pro­fi­cient that his “singing lyre” could lit­er­ally move rocks on the hill­side and turn the courses of rivers. When his bride, Eury­dice, died of a snake bite imme­di­ately after their wed­ding, Orpheus dared some­thing no man had ever done before. He descended into the under­world and played for the gods, ask­ing for Eurydice’s return. The gods could not resist Orpheus’s music and returned Eury­dice with one con­di­tion: that he not look at her until they had reached the upper world. As Orpheus stepped out into the sun­light, he turned to see Eury­dice, but she was still in the cav­ern, not yet in the upper world. She slipped back in the dark­ness, and Orpheus was forced to return to the earth alone. He wan­dered through the wilds of the world, des­o­late, play­ing his lyre, until a band of fren­zied Mae­nads came upon him and tore him limb from limb.

It was inevitable that a story com­bin­ing the power of love with the power of music itself would appeal to com­posers. Though his­to­ri­ans dis­agree about what, exactly, was the very first opera, Clau­dio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, first given in Man­tua in February1607, inter­twined music and poetry in a way that brought the famil­iar Orpheus myth to life with a dra­matic impact quite new to its audience.

Gluck by Duplessis

But the most famous of all Orpheus operas is Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. It was first given in the Burgth­e­ater in Vienna on Octo­ber 5, 1762. By then Gluck, who was born in Ger­many and had stud­ied and worked in Italy, then Lon­don, had lived in Vienna (his wife’s home) for about 10 years. The direc­tor of the court the­aters, Count Durazzo, admired Gluck’s work and intro­duced him to two men who were deter­mined to reform their own art forms: the poet Raniero Calz­abigi and the bal­let mas­ter Gas­paro Angi­olini. The year before Orfeo, the three men had col­lab­o­rated on a dance-drama enti­tled Le fes­tin de Pierre that had sur­prised the Vien­nese pub­lic with its seri­ous retelling of the Don Juan story. Their Orpheus opera was no less a sur­prise. (Though Gluck lamented the inevitable — at the time — happy end­ing by writ­ing, “To adapt the fable to the usage of our the­aters, I was forced to alter the climax.”)

Ital­ian opera of the day had cer­tain con­ven­tions that seemed carved in stone. Most operas were set to libretti by Pietro Metas­ta­sio, or at least rigidly fol­lowed his for­mula: no cho­rus, six char­ac­ters (includ­ing a first and sec­ond pair of lovers), and the often extremely elab­o­rate arias, them­selves, often da capo arias, fol­lowed a pattern.

Gluck’s Orfeo broke all those rules. The cho­rus is an inte­gral part of the opera, which has only three char­ac­ters: Orfeo, Euridice, and Amore. Orfeo does not first appear with a heav­ily embell­ished aria dis­play­ing his voice, but with three sim­ple, yet heart-rending rep­e­ti­tions of “Euridice!” sung over a mov­ing choral lament. The story of the opera is told with a direct­ness that was rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Events unfold almost in real time, with a cumu­la­tive impact that even today can be over­whelm­ing — which is why this new pro­duc­tion will be done with­out an intermission.

In addi­tion to for­sak­ing elab­o­rately dec­o­rated, da capo arias, in favor of sim­ple, poignant vocal music that goes directly to the listener’s heart, Gluck did away with secco recita­tive accom­pa­nied by a harp­si­chord. Instead, the orches­tra plays through­out, which also helps to unify the opera into a true musi­cal drama.

Louise Homer as Orfeo

Orfeo is often cited as an exam­ple of Gluck’s inten­tion to reform opera. But his famous let­ter to Grand-Duke Leopold, in which he declared: “I sought to restrict music to its true func­tion, namely to serve the poetry by means of the expres­sion with­out inter­rupt­ing the action or dimin­ish­ing its inter­est by use­less and super­flu­ous orna­ment,” was writ­ten in 1769, as the pref­ace to his opera Alceste, seven years after Orfeo’s pre­mière. But there is no doubt that in Orfeo Gluck, the com­poser, had truly antic­i­pated Gluck the philosopher-reformer. At first, the Vien­nese pub­lic was cool to the new opera. But its unde­ni­able power won them over, and it was soon thrilling audi­ences through­out Ger­many and Scan­di­navia as well as in London.

Twelve years later Gluck com­posed a new ver­sion of Orfeo for the Paris Opéra, Orphée et Euridice, which was a huge suc­cess. Among other changes, the title role was rewrit­ten for a high tenor (in Vienna it was sung by the con­tralto cas­trato Guadagni.) Gluck also added a bravura aria for Orphée to end the first act and some addi­tional bal­let music, includ­ing the Dance of the Blessed Spir­its, for flute and strings, which become one of his most pop­u­lar instru­men­tal works. The com­poser Hec­tor Berlioz used this 1774 French ver­sion as the basis for his own 1859 rework­ing of the opera for the great mezzo Pauline Viardot-Garcia who wanted to sing the title role.

Most per­for­mances of Orfeo (or Orphée) are a com­bi­na­tion of Gluck’s two ver­sions — depend­ing on what the con­duc­tor and/or the singer doing Orfeo, feels is appro­pri­ate. As far as can be deter­mined, this new pro­duc­tion is the first time the Met has given Gluck’s orig­i­nal 1762 Orfeo.

The Met first did the opera in Boston, in 1885, in Ger­man. The first time it was done at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House was in 1891, when it served as a cur­tain raiser to Cav­al­le­ria Rus­ti­cana, and ended after Orfeo’s famous Act III aria, “Che farò.” It was finally given on its own, in the Met, on Decem­ber 23, 1909, with Toscanini con­duct­ing Louise Homer in the title role, Johanna Gad­ski as Euridice, and Alma Gluck as the Happy Shade. It was one of the great evenings in Met his­tory. Toscanini omit­ted the over­ture, and Homer added “Divini­tiés du Styx” from Gluck’s Alceste at the end of Act I. But even so, writ­ing over half a cen­tury later, Fran­cis Robin­son, an assis­tant man­ager of the Met, said, “It must have been as per­fect a pro­duc­tion as exists in the annals of opera.”

Toscanini in 1908

Toscanini went on to con­duct Orfeo 24 times at the Met; Homer sang the title role 21 times. Both remain a com­pany record. The Met has not given Orfeo all that often — open­ing night of this new pro­duc­tion will only be its 83rd per­for­mance. And it has often been com­bined with a vari­ety of other operas and bal­lets. (In 1936 the singers were rel­e­gated to the orches­tra pit while the chore­og­ra­phy of George Bal­an­chine and Pavel Tche­litchev took over the stage. It was a short-lived exper­i­ment.) But even so, it is a mas­ter­piece that has attracted some of the top artists of their time. In addi­tion to Toscanini, its con­duc­tors include Arthur Bodanzky, Wal­ter Dam­rosch, Eric Leins­dorf, Charles Mack­er­ras, Pierre Mon­teux, Bruno Wal­ter — and, now, James Levine. David Daniels will be the first coun­tertenor to sing the title role of the opera at the Met, join­ing such singers as Mar­i­anne Brandt, Grace Bum­bry, Louise Homer, Mar­i­lyn Horne, Mar­garete Matzenauer, Risë Stevens, and Ker­stin Thor­borg. Notably Euridice’s include Johanna Gad­sksi, Hilde Güden, Jarmila Novotna, and Gabriela Tucci; and Alma Gluck, Roberta Peters, and Anneliese Rothen­berger have been promi­nent Amores.

In Anne Homer’s biog­ra­phy of her mother, Louise Homer and the Golden Age of Opera, she sums up the rea­son Orfeo has remained such a pow­er­ful work for almost 250 years: “One of the mir­a­cles of this opera lay in the stark range of emo­tions. Gluck had found a way of encom­pass­ing the heights and depths of human expe­ri­ence. Side by side he had arrayed the ugly and the sub­lime — the ter­rors of the under­world,  the ‘pure light’ of inef­fa­ble bliss. With the genius of poetry and econ­omy, he had pit­ted the most deadly and fear­some hor­rors against the radi­ant power of love, and then trans­fixed his lis­ten­ers with music so inspired that they were caught up irre­sistibly in the eter­nal conflict.”

And now, a new gen­er­a­tion of opera goers will be able to expe­ri­ence this for them­selves at the Met.

This pro­gram note orig­i­nally appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill May 2007.

 The paint­ing at the top of the arti­cle is Orfeo ed Euridice by Fred­eric Leighton, 1864.







For almost two cen­turies, Beethoven’s Fide­lio has enjoyed a very spe­cial place in the world of opera. Its cel­e­bra­tion of mar­ried love at its most ele­vated, along with the tri­umph of polit­i­cal free­dom over the forces of tyranny, has ensured Fide­lio  a mythic sta­tus — akin to Beethoven’s own Ninth Sym­phony — in much of the world. It is a work of art which offers a well-nigh reli­gious, awe-inspiring expe­ri­ence in its hon­or­ing of the very best of human nature.  “(Fide­lio) is an ode to nobil­ity of soul and the dig­nity of man,” is the way one author put it, quite correctly.

But for all the lofty sen­ti­ments of the libretto and the stir­ring music Beethoven lav­ished on it, there is another part of Fide­lio, which is often deeply regret­ted by those who most admire the opera. The received wis­dom is that Fide­lio it is a won­der­ful, but ter­ri­bly flawed mas­ter­piece which could be an even greater work if — some­how — one could just excise those igno­ble parts which detract so much from its high minded “real” nature. On the one hand we have Beethoven at his might­i­est, writ­ing pow­er­ful, expres­sive music for his hero­ine Leonore, and her unjustly impris­oned hus­band, Flo­restan — to say noth­ing of the cel­e­brated Prisoner’s Cho­rus, which is guar­an­teed to melt the flinti­est hearts in the audi­ence, as well as some of his great­est instru­men­tal music in the var­i­ous over­tures he com­posed for the work.

On the other hand we have Rocco, the jailer; his daugh­ter, Marzelline; and her erst­while finance, Jaquino;  “minor” char­ac­ters who clut­ter up Fide­lio’s vir­tu­ous land­scape with their petty natures and picayune con­cerns. They are ter­ri­bly unheroic peo­ple, involved with the most ordi­nary affairs. But far from ruing Beethoven’s “mis­take” at includ­ing these allegedly dis­pos­able, “lit­tle” peo­ple in his mas­ter­piece, it is through their reac­tions, espe­cially those of Rocco, that we can par­tic­i­pate fully in the unfold­ing drama. Though three of the opera’s first four vocal num­bers are often merely tol­er­ated for the sake of the rest of the opera, it is a mis­take to treat them dismissively.

There is lit­tle dra­matic stuff in Marzelline, Jaquino and Rocco,” wrote Paul Henry Lang in The Expe­ri­ence of Opera, reflect­ing the view of most crit­ics and musi­col­o­gists. Lang observes of these early num­bers in the opera, “The tunes are good and the the­matic elab­o­ra­tion in the orches­tra never fal­ters. But emo­tion­ally involved the com­poser was not.”

Oh? Actu­ally the music rep­re­sents not Beethoven’s lack of emo­tional involve­ment, but rather his quite skill­ful depic­tion of these char­ac­ters through the music he wrote for them. It is a delib­er­ate “soft­en­ing up” of the audi­ence before Beethoven unleashes his main theme: the intense drama of Leonore and her quest to res­cue his husband.

A card with a scene from the opera. On the back is a recipe.

The opera begins with a perky, rather comic duet between Marzelline, who is iron­ing clothes, and Jaquino, the young turnkey who wants to marry her. When Jaquino is called away, Marzelline sings an aria about her love for Fide­lio, the young man who has recently become her father’s assis­tant. The music of these two open­ing num­bers is a per­fect reflec­tion of the rather sim­ple char­ac­ters who sing it. But rather than erring by includ­ing such mun­dane hap­pen­ings in his opera, Beethoven actu­ally is eas­ing us into Fide­lio’s world, sug­gest­ing that the tremen­dous, earth-shattering events to come are not found in some “other” world, but often sneak up on us right where we are, in the mid­dle of our mun­dane, every­day life.

This is rein­forced by the very next num­ber, the quar­tet, “Mir ist so wun­der­bar,”  which is one of the glo­ries of the entire score. But notice that its first singer, the per­son who intro­duces us to the quartet’s tran­scen­dent world, is not the opera’s hero­ine, Leonore, but sim­ple lit­tle Marzelline. It is through her, that we enter the quartet’s magic.

It is always a shock for the audi­ence, which usu­ally is still under the spell of the quar­tet, when Rocco then launches into his “Gold” aria.  “Its joc­u­lar, vul­gar char­ac­ter is curi­ously at vari­ance with the style of the quar­tet it fol­lows,” wrote Lud­wig Misch in The Beethoven Com­pan­ion.  But Beethoven under­stood that most human beings can only briefly live in the exalted, rar­efied atmos­phere that so per­me­ates “Mir ist so wun­der­bar.”  It gives us hope, it nur­tures our souls. With­out it we merely exist, rather than truly live fully. But most of us mere mor­tals can­not take the spir­i­tual heights for very long at any one stretch of time, how­ever much we might wish it otherwise.

And the “joc­u­lar, vul­gar char­ac­ter” of the music of Rocco’s aria is, in its own way, quite life affirm­ing. The words to the aria are rather cyn­i­cal, even soul­less. “If you don’t have gold, hap­pi­ness is hard to fine,” Rocco sings, “but if it jin­gles in your pocket, fate is at your mercy. Gold can bring you love and power. For­tune is like a paid ser­vant and serves its mas­ter, mighty gold.” It is the oper­atic equiv­a­lent of the song “Money Makes the World Go Around,” from the musi­cal Cabaret.

Beethoven obvi­ously has a lot of affec­tion for Rocco as a char­ac­ter, despite the man’s obvi­ous flaws (or, per­haps, because of them), because the music he wrote for this aria is far from the cold music he could have writ­ten, music that would have reflected the harsh words. In fact, the music Beethoven wrote is down­right cheer­ful, if, per­haps, a bit too-obviously hearty. But that’s Rocco. He embod­ies many of the same con­tra­dic­tions we do. In fact, Rocco’s ambiva­lence and ambi­gu­ity make him a lot like most of us. In a sense, he our rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the drama.

Vick­ers, Nils­son and Boehm, a mar­velous performance.

How­ever much we might like to iden­tify with Leonore or Flo­restan in the purity of their motives and the nobil­ity of their cause (or, when we are angry, per­haps with Pizarro and the single-mindedness of his revenge), most of us are, actu­ally, much more like Rocco. We have our good sides and our less than admirable traits.  Our first con­cern when pre­sented with a new sit­u­a­tion is often how it will affect us and our fam­ily, rather than eval­u­at­ing it from a moral philo­soph­i­cal perspective.

Dur­ing the course of Fide­lio, Rocco grad­u­ally under­goes a remark­able change. In fact, of all the char­ac­ters in the opera it is Rocco who trav­els the fur­thest. Leonore and Flo­restan are com­pelling, vivid, life-affirming char­ac­ters, but dur­ing the opera, they do not undergo much in the way of trans­for­ma­tion, how­ever much they might have evolved before the opera itself begins. Pizarro, sim­i­larly, is the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of evil, and Beethoven’s music makes his need for revenge quite pal­pa­ble and dra­matic. But he, too, is a rather one-dimensional figure.

Matti Salmi­nen, a mar­velous Rocco.

Rocco, how­ever, is much more neb­u­lous in his out­lines. At first he seems sim­ple: a middle-aged jailer with a daugh­ter, delighted that fate has sent him Fide­lio, who seems to be a young man of mar­riage­able age who works hard at his job. Rocco decides Fide­lio and Marzelline will marry each other and some­day Fide­lio will inherit Rocco’s job. Life seems good, sim­ple and straight­for­ward: well, pretty much, any­way. There’s a pris­oner Rocco has been instructed to starve and that both­ers Rocco’s con­science a bit, but he jus­ti­fies it as just fol­low­ing the order of his boss, Pizarro. “Your heart will harden in the pres­ence of ter­ri­ble things,” Rocco assures Fide­lio, obvi­ously speak­ing from experience.

But when Pizarro tells Rocco to kill the spe­cial pris­oner, Rocco refuses. “I can­not do it. I am not hired to kill,” he tells Pizarro. But he man­ages to jus­tify Pizarro mur­der­ing the pris­oner by telling him­self the man is prob­a­bly dying of hunger any­way, he is suf­fer­ing greatly, so “to kill him is to save him, and [Pizarro’s dag­ger] will set him free.”  No sooner have we decided Rocco is a pretty morally rep­re­hen­si­ble guy, than he turns around, while Pizarro is momen­tar­ily away, and gives in to the plead­ing of both Leonore and Marzelline that the pris­on­ers be let out of their cells to enjoy some sun­shine and fresh air.

When an enraged Pizarro learns of this kind­ness and con­fronts Rocco, the jailer shows just how wily he is. First he sug­gests the deed is jus­ti­fied by the spring sea­son itself, the warm sun­shine — but he notices Pizarro is not buy­ing his rea­son­ing. Beethoven’s music quite clearly tells us Rocco is mak­ing all this up as he goes along, it fully cap­tures Rocco’s uncer­tainty and search­ing, some­times com­ing to a full stop, before he finally com­ing out with an excuse (obvi­ously thought up on the spot) that it is the King’s name day, and they must do him honor. As Pizarro begins to weaken, Rocco moves in for the clincher, “Down below [the spe­cial pris­oner] will die. Spare your rage for him.” Pizarro has been suc­cess­fully dis­tracted from his rage against Rocco.  The exchange only take a cou­ple pages in the score, but it is a telling exam­ple of Rocco’s char­ac­ter, being quick on his feet when he needs to save him­self — bril­liantly mir­rored in Beethoven’s music.

Through­out the course of the opera we get numer­ous exam­ples of Rocco being good, then Rocco being less admirable. But one fact is quite clear: if Rocco had not taken Fidelio/Leonore down into the dun­geon with him, she could never have saved Florestan’s life. It is Rocco who gives her the oppor­tu­nity to it. The suc­cess­ful res­o­lu­tion of the drama does not work with­out him, with­out their mutual coöperation.

Even in the dun­geon scene, Rocco’s dual nature is fully evi­dent. He allows Leonore to give Flo­restan some wine, to ease his thirst, but when she starts to offer her hus­band a crust of bread Rocco at first stops her — “I’d like to, but it really would be risk­ing too much.” — before finally relent­ing.  (Notice, too, the ele­ments of the Eucharist, sym­bol­i­cally bring­ing Life into the dark­est depths of the dun­geon, to the dying Florestan.)

Klaus Ten­ndt­edt led incan­des­cent per­for­mances of FIDELIO at the Met.

While it is true that Leonore saves Florestan’s life by jump­ing in front of him as Pizarro moves to stab the pris­oner, and holds off Pizarro with a gun, it is Rocco who ensures the suc­cess­ful out­come of Leonore’s deed. After the trum­pet call, sig­nal­ing the arrival of Don Fer­nando, the Min­is­ter of State, Jaquino (one of the “lit­tle char­ac­ters”) enters the dun­geon, ver­i­fy­ing the news. In the ensu­ing con­fu­sion it might still be pos­si­ble for Pizarro to do his dirty work, but Rocco foils him by order­ing, “Those fel­lows with the torches must come down and accom­pa­ny­ing [Pizarro] upstairs.” And it is Rocco who breaks through the guards in the parade grounds, pre­sent­ing Flo­restan and Leonore to the Min­is­ter of State and relates all that has hap­pened (and also, true to char­ac­ter, in the process puts his own actions in the most favor­able light possible.)

Florestan/Leonore and Pizarro are The Hero and The Bad Guy, but Rocco embod­ies both. He is the con­nec­tion, lit­er­ally, between good and evil, between Florestan/Leonore and Pizarro. He begins by prepar­ing the way for Pizarro to mur­der Flo­restan, but ends by ensur­ing Florestan’s sal­va­tion and Pizarro’s pun­ish­ment. Rocco is us, part hero, part bad guy. He is human. No won­der Beethoven felt such obvi­ous affec­tion for him, and for the jour­ney he trav­els dur­ing Fide­lio.

This arti­cle first appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, Octo­ber 2000.

The por­trait of Beethoven at the top of the page is by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.