by Opera



Die Ägyp­tis­che Hele­naThe Egypt­ian Helen—is the poor, neglect­ed step­sis­ter of the operas writ­ten by Richard Strauss and his favorite libret­tist Hugo von Hof­mannsthal. Despite the pop­u­lar­i­ty of their oth­er operas—Elek­tra, Der Rosenkava­lier, Ari­adne auf Nax­os, Die Frau ohne Schat­ten, and Ara­bel­laEgypt­ian Helen remains vir­tu­al­ly unknown except for the most die-hard Strauss fans.

Before this new pro­duc­tion opened at the Met on March 15, 2007, the com­pa­ny had only giv­en sev­en per­for­mances of the work, dur­ing Novem­ber and Decem­ber, 1928. This pro­duc­tion orig­i­nat­ed at the Gars­ing­ton Fes­ti­val, out­side Oxford, Eng­land, where its per­for­mance in 1997 was the first time the opera had ever been staged in the U.K. The Egypt­ian Helen did not even get a com­mer­cial record­ing until 1979, over half a cen­tu­ry after its pre­mière.

The Met’s 1928 per­for­mances of Egypt­ian Helen fol­lowed its world pre­mière in Dres­den by five months, and starred the glam­orous sopra­no Maria Jer­itza for whom the opera had been writ­ten.  That sump­tu­ous pro­duc­tion was by Joseph Urban, who, two years ear­li­er, had designed the first Turan­dot at the Met (and in the U.S.), which also starred Jer­itza. Her blonde beau­ty, riv­et­ing act­ing, and soar­ing voice were famil­iar to Strauss. She had cre­at­ed lead­ing roles in the world pre­mieres of Ari­adne (both 1912 and 1916 ver­sions), and Die Frau ohne Schat­ten, and had also intro­duced Egypt­ian Helen to Vien­na with Strauss him­self con­duct­ing five days after its world pre­mière. So it is sur­pris­ing to read in the New York Times review of that first Met Helen that  “a page, and a par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult one” was cut out of Helen’s big aria that opens Act II, “Zweite Braut­nacht” (Sec­ond Bridal Night.)

Jer­itza and Strauss at the Vien­na pre­mière.

Two scores in the Met Music Library used in those 1928 per­for­mances con­firm exten­sive cuts were made, espe­cial­ly in the sec­ond act. But what is shock­ing is that Jer­itza did not sing almost half of her main aria! Out of ten pages, four and a half pages were cut from the mid­dle, and six mea­sures were delet­ed from the aria’s final eleven mea­sures, includ­ing the cli­mac­tic high C‑sharp. Which means that Deb­o­rah Voigt will be the first sopra­no in Met his­to­ry to sing Helen’s famous aria com­plete on stage dur­ing a per­for­mance. (Leon­tyne Price sang the aria dur­ing a Lewisohn Sta­di­um con­cert she and the Met orches­tra gave in July 1966.)

Strauss had been pleased when Hof­mannsthal sug­gest­ed Jer­itza would be per­fect for the lead­ing role of a libret­to he had been work­ing on based on the leg­endary fig­ure of Helen of Troy, the most beau­ti­ful woman in the world, “the face that launched a thou­sand ships,” and the cause of the Tro­jan war. Strauss had first seen Jer­itza in Offenbach’s La Belle Helene, and he was long­ing to com­pose a light opera with Hof­mannsthal. After their col­lab­o­ra­tion on the roman­tic Die Frau ohne Schat­ten (1919), Strauss decid­ed to use a mis­un­der­stand­ing in his own mar­riage as the basis for a com­ic opera. The fas­tid­i­ous Hof­mannsthal was aghast at the idea of an artist putting his pri­vate life on stage, and he refused to have any­thing to do with the project. Strauss wrote his own libret­to and the result was Inter­mez­zo, first giv­en in 1923.

But Strauss great­ly val­ued col­lab­o­rat­ing with Hof­mannsthal, and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work on anoth­er project based on Greek myth (as they had with Elek­tra and Ari­adne) was appeal­ing, espe­cial­ly since the libret­tist urged, “The style must be free-flow­ing, on occa­sion as near­ly as con­ver­sa­tion­al as the Pro­logue to Ari­adne. The more light heart­ed­ly you can han­dle this, the bet­ter it would be.”

The opera con­cerns the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of Helen and her hus­band, Menelaus, after he has sacked Troy and killed his arch ene­my, Paris, whose kid­nap­ping of Helen ten years before had set off the Tro­jan war. “What lay between that dread­ful night [when Menelaus res­cued his wife from Troy] and the com­plete rec­on­cil­i­a­tion that fol­lowed?” Hof­mannsthal wrote. “What can have helped rebuild this mar­riage as a true com­pan­ion­ship?”

Hof­mannsthal based his libret­to on sev­er­al ancient Greek sources — Homer’s Odyssey, and works by Herodotus and Euripi­des, among oth­ers. And he chose a ver­sion of the tale that said the Helen who was car­ried off by Paris, and who lived with him for ten years, was a phan­tom Helen. The real, flesh and blood Helen had remained behind in her husband’s home in Egypt.

Strauss loved the libret­to of the first act, prais­ing it as high­ly as he had praised the first act of Rosenkava­lier about a decade before. Hof­mannsthal was delight­ed. “Tell your­self that you mean to han­dle it as if it were mere­ly to be an operetta,” he wrote. “It’s bound to be by Richard Strauss at the end.”

But Act II proved much more dif­fi­cult. Hof­mannsthal, as he was some­times inclined to do, began wax­ing ever more philo­soph­i­cal and psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic as the libret­to pro­gressed, and once again, the two men found they had very dif­fer­ent ideas on what their new opera was all about. Part way through Act II, Strauss com­plained, “I’ve been stuck for a long time at the entrance of Altair and can’t make any progress. It’s par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult to find — for this entrance of the sons of the desert — the kind of music that still sounds suf­fi­cient­ly char­ac­ter­is­tic to the ears of 1925, with­out degen­er­at­ing into the so-called real­ism of Salome, or even the eccen­tric­i­ties of today’s mod­ernists who hear only with Amer­i­can ears.”

Their orig­i­nal plan, to use spo­ken dia­logue in between musi­cal num­bers (as in Mozart’s The Mag­ic Flute and Beethoven’s Fide­lio) was dropped, and the result was an almost unprece­dent­ed oppor­tu­ni­ty for musi­cal ensem­bles, which has led some crit­ics to refer to Egypt­ian Helen as the Strauss/Hofmannsthal bel can­to opera. It also has, in Menelaus, by far their longest and most devel­oped tenor role.

The 1928 score

Strauss fin­ished the score in Octo­ber, 1927, but a prob­lem arose over the first per­for­mance.  Jeritza’s fee was far too exor­bi­tant for the Dres­den opera which, in any case, was bound by the rules of the Deutsch­er Büh­nen­vere­in that pro­hib­it­ed pay­ing such a high fee. So Strauss sug­gest­ed Elis­a­beth Reth­berg for the pre­mière. Her voice was excep­tion­al­ly beau­ti­ful (Toscani­ni com­pared it to a fine­ly played Stradi­var­ius), and she was some­thing a local favorite, hav­ing been born near­by and start­ing her career with the Dres­den com­pa­ny.

She is now a great star in New York, next to Jer­itza, and is about to enter into a sim­i­lar rela­tion­ship to Dres­den as Jer­itza to Vien­na. Since I believe there is no chance now of get­ting Jer­itza I have def­i­nite­ly decid­ed for Reth­berg, whose some­what bour­geois appear­ance has ‘great­ly improved’ in Amer­i­ca,” Strauss told Hof­mannsthal, adding prag­mat­i­cal­ly, “she is not so tall as Mme Jer­itza, and will there­fore go bet­ter with the short [Curt] Tauch­er as Menelaus; she enjoys a great inter­na­tion­al rep­u­ta­tion and is today gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered the best Ger­man singer with the most mag­nif­i­cent voice and an accom­plished singing tech­nique. She intends to call on me dur­ing the next few days so as to con­vince me per­son­al­ly of her ‘sophis­ti­cat­ed’ appear­ance — I don’t believe we’ll find any­thing bet­ter in the cir­cum­stances.

Jer­itza, if she real­ly wants to, can then cre­ate the part in Vien­na in Sep­tem­ber and alter­nate with Reth­berg in New York.”

Hof­mannsthal hit the roof. “Hele­na with a grace­less Helen is sim­ply ruined. This opera, of that I am well aware, is not a dead cer­tain­ty; but it has very real chances of com­plete, gen­uine suc­cess on stage, pro­vid­ed the histri­on­ic ele­ments go hand in hand with the musi­cal ones. It is not the face of the actress that mat­ters; a very pret­ty doll might make a wretched Hele­na. Nor does it mat­ter whether Mms Reth­berg has now got a bet­ter dress­mak­er and looks ‘more sophis­ti­cat­ed’ (what goes for sophis­ti­cat­ed among the­atri­cal peo­ple in Ger­man is in any case some­thing awful),” sniffed the Vien­nese Hof­mannsthal. “But every­thing depends on the mag­ic of act­ing and move­ment, that means on a specif­i­cal­ly fem­i­nine tal­ent for the the­ater. Mme Reth­berg may sing like a nightin­gale, I under­stand noth­ing about that; what I do know is that she is worse than mediocre as an actress and this will ruin Helen, com­plete­ly ruin her.”

Strauss replied calm­ly to this out­burst — as he usu­al­ly did to his librettist’s bouts of hys­te­ria — by talk­ing dol­lars and cents, or, in this case Deutschmarks, final­ly declar­ing “We shall sim­ply have to do with­out Jer­itza! You only know her, just as I do, from the time before she went to Amer­i­ca.” He then added, “From what I have heard late­ly about Jer­itza, I’m not at all sure that, apart from appear­ance and stage tal­ent, she too would not leave a good many oth­er wish­es unfilled.”

There was talk of ask­ing Jer­itza if she would be will­ing to sing the pre­mière in Dres­den for noth­ing, thus get­ting around the Deutsch­er Büh­nen­vere­in rules. “But I doubt whether the pub­lic­i­ty will seem to her worth the sac­ri­fice,” Strauss sage­ly not­ed.

In the end, it was Elis­a­beth Reth­berg who cre­at­ed the role of Hele­na in Dres­den on June 6, 1928. Her reviews where glow­ing.  Five days lat­er, Jer­itza sang the role in Vien­na with Strauss con­duct­ing.

Reth­berg as Madama But­ter­ly

In one of those twists of fate a writer of fic­tion would hard­ly dare come up with, on the night that Jer­itza cre­at­ed the role at the Met — Novem­ber 6, 1928 — the com­pa­ny was also pre­sent­ing Puccini’s Madama But­ter­fly in Brook­lyn. Reth­berg sang Cio-Cio-San that evening, and it’s impos­si­ble not to won­der what went through her mind. (Despite what Strauss pre­dict­ed to Hof­mannsthal, Reth­berg nev­er sang the role of Hele­na at the Met.)

Also in that first Met cast for Hele­na was Rudolf Lauben­thal as Menelaus (Wal­ter Kirch­hoff sang some of the oth­er per­for­mances), Editha Fleis­ch­er as Aithra, Clarence White­hill as Altair, and Mar­i­on Tel­va (known to record col­lec­tors for her Adal­gisa to Rosa Ponselle’s Nor­ma) as the Omni­scient Seashell. For some rea­son the small tenor role of Da-ud in Act II was assigned to the mez­zo Jane Car­roll (“late of the Fol­lies” not­ed one news­pa­per). Artur Bodanzky con­duct­ed. The crit­ics were sav­age, though they admit­ted Strauss’s skill in writ­ing for the orches­tra was unsur­passed.

But there is, in fact, much to admire in The Egypt­ian Helen in addi­tion to Helen’s just­ly famous Act II aria. Through­out the opera there is a con­stant out­pour­ing of lus­cious melody, sharply delin­eat­ed between char­ac­ters. In Act I Strauss’s musi­cal jux­ta­pos­ing of Aithra, Helen, Menelaus, and the mock­ing, sar­don­ic elves, is a con­stant delight. There are also sim­ply mag­i­cal moments, as at the begin­ning of the finale of Act I, when Strauss slow­ly builds the orches­tral sound to a triple forte as Aithra pulls back the cur­tain to show Menelaus the sleep­ing Helen, only to have him gaze at his wife as a French horn plays a soft haunt­ing melody over the gen­tle mur­mur­ings of the strings. It is Strauss at his most enchant­i­ng, once heard, nev­er to be for­got­ten.

Per­haps this new pro­duc­tion at the Met (which uses Strauss’s orig­i­nal score, not his 1933 revi­sion) will do for The Egypt­ian Helen what the Met’s 1966 pro­duc­tion of Die Frau ohne Schat­ten did — reveal that, in fact, we have anoth­er almost unknown opera by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hof­mannsthal to enjoy and, yes, even to love.

A some­what dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2007.

The image at the top of the page is of a Greek vase, ca: 450 – 40 B.C. depict­ing Helen and Menelaus.



It was a June 1940 revival of Die Ägyp­tis­che Hele­na in Munich that led Strauss to final­ly orches­trate one of his most pop­u­lar songs, “Zueig­nung.” The orches­tra­tion we almost always hear is by Robert Heger. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it’s rather clunky and heavy hand­ed. Giv­en the song’s pop­u­lar­i­ty it’s sur­pris­ing Strauss did not orches­trat­ed “Zueig­nung” as he did sev­er­al oth­er ear­ly songs so his wife, Pauline, could sing them in their joint con­certs.

Strauss’s sel­dom-heard incan­des­cent orches­tra­tion was a gift for sopra­no Vior­i­ca Ursuleac who was the Hele­na in Munich. She had sung the title role in Ara­bel­la’s pre­mière in 1933, and went on to cre­ate sev­er­al Strauss roles: Maria in Frien­den­stag (1938), The Count­ess in Capric­cio (1942), and she was Danae in the pub­lic dress rehearsal of Die Liebe der Danae in Salzburg on August 16, 1944, after which, the offi­cial pre­mière was can­celled due to the procla­ma­tion of total war that closed all the­aters in the Third Reich. Ursuleac was also a famous Marschallin in Rosenkava­lier, Chrysothemis in Elek­tra, and Empress in Die Frau ohne Schat­ten.  On Strauss’s birth­day, June 11, 1935 she sang the part of Ari­adne in what must be one of the ear­li­est sur­viv­ing radio broad­casts of a com­plete Strauss opera (though the Pro­logue was not per­formed). Con­duct­ed by Clemens Krauss (who would lat­er become Ursuleac’s hus­band) the broad­cast orig­i­nat­ed in Berlin and includ­ed a rather ritzy cast: Helge Ros­vaenge (Bac­chus), Miliza Kor­jus (as Najad), and  Erna Berg­er (Zer­bi­net­ta), to men­tion only a few.

In the last line of “Zueig­nung” Strauss added the worlds “du wun­der­bare Hele­na” before the final “habe Dank!” And after the con­clud­ing chord he wrote in the score “Für Vior­i­ca.”

The first record­ing to use Strauss’s shim­mer­ing orches­tra­tion was made in 1977, when Montser­rat Cabal­lé and Leonard Bern­stein record­ed it for Deutsche Gram­mophon.

Strauss and Busch out­side the Dres­den State Opera, 1928

The con­duc­tor of the world pre­mière of Die Ägyp­tis­che Hele­na was Fritz Busch who talks quite frankly about Strauss in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy Pages from a Musician’s Life. One day Busch was work­ing with the first clar­inet of the Staatskapelle Dres­den in his office at the Dres­den State Opera, going through Mozart’s clar­inet con­cer­to. The door sud­den­ly opened and in walked Strauss. “We talked for a long time after this rehearsal about the mar­velous Mozart,” Busch wrote. “Strauss declared that his g minor string quin­tet  [K. 516] was the sum­mit of all music.”

Busch also wrote: “In Garmisch Strauss played me his Ägyp­tis­che Hele­na which was to have its world pre­mière in Dres­den, and asked for my sin­cere opin­ion. I did not hes­i­tate to say, amongst oth­er things, that I thought Daud’s song in D flat major [Denn es ist recht] was cheap and that he ought to weigh such ‘inspi­ra­tions’ more care­ful­ly. He in no way dis­put­ed this crit­i­cism but actu­al­ly repeat­ed it with enjoy­ment to his wife, who had just come into the room, but then added with dis­dain­ful cyn­i­cism: ‘That’s what’s want­ed for the ser­vant girls. Believe me, dear Busch, the gen­er­al pub­lic would not go to Tannhäuser it if didn’t con­tain ‘Oh, Star of Eve’ or to the Walküre with­out ‘Win­ter Storms.’ Well, well, that’s what they want.’ ”

In Nor­man Del Mar’s three-vol­ume study of Strauss he quotes from the rem­i­nis­cences of coach and con­duc­tor Leo Wurmser who was on the staff of the Dres­den State Opera at the time Egypt­ian Helen had its pre­mière. “Strauss came to the final rehearsals, seemed on the whole more inter­est­ed in the pro­duc­tion than in the music and want­ed sev­er­al things altered. Pauline, who sat in the first row of the stalls, to everyone’s con­ster­na­tion, clam­ored for hors­es on the stage which had not been pro­vid­ed. At the end of Act I she cried, ‘There isn’t enough thun­der! We want more thun­der here.’ After a whis­pered con­sul­ta­tion with her, Strauss called to [the pro­duc­er] Erhardt, ‘All right, Dr. Erhardt, let’s have more thun­der,’ and added aside to the orches­tra, ‘The Wife is always for thun­der.’ At the first dress rehearsal he sat in the stalls fol­low­ing the score at a light­ed desk. I sat near­by tak­ing notes. He lis­tened patient­ly to the end of the first act and then went for­ward and talked with Busch. So we had a break and then Act I all over again with Strauss at the ros­trum. It was like a dif­fer­ent opera; one big line from begin­ning to end, the right tem­pi and rubatos, co-oper­a­tion with the singers and many of the 4/4 pas­sages beat­en in 2.”




The Mag­ic Flute is the ram­bling jour­ney of a soul in search of truth, his voy­age from dark­ness to light,” writes Janos Lieb­n­er in Mozart on the Stage, and he is absolute­ly right.  There is no doubt that Mozart’s last opera is one of the great­est operas ever writ­ten. But there is also no doubt that for quite a num­ber of opera fans — even some Mozart afi­ciona­dos — there often is some­thing of an aster­isk next to the term “great” when used with Die Zauber­flöte.

True, it has a secure place in the reper­toire, and many famous com­posers and con­duc­tors have said fab­u­lous things about it. But — the aster­isk says — while Mozart’s music is super, it is severe­ly under­cut by Emanuel Schikaneder’s libret­to with its rather sil­ly, con­vo­lut­ed, even con­tra­dic­to­ry sto­ry. What a shame the com­pos­er had to “slip” and write such a low-brow com­ic singspiel, rather than end­ing his life’s work with just one more true opera, some­thing that could hon­est­ly be put beside The Mar­riage of Figaro, Don Gio­van­ni and Così fan tutte.

In Die Zauber­flöte, the lis­ten­er must strug­gle to under­stand — or, per­haps bet­ter, to set aside — the plot for the sake of the music,” is the way one (oth­er­wise admirable) recent biog­ra­phy of Mozart puts it. “The sto­ry is hope­less­ly con­vo­lut­ed and self-contradictory…The music car­ries it all, even though the incon­gru­ous con­duct of Mozart’s cast of char­ac­ters and the flat human­i­tar­i­an preach­ments made great demands on his abil­i­ty to shift from one style of vocal writ­ing to anoth­er.”

Schikaned­er as Papageno

At first glance, there does seem to be an abrupt shift in the libret­to with the “good” char­ac­ters in act one turn­ing out to be evil in act two — and vice ver­sa. There are also mag­ic tricks check by jowl with Mason­ic ini­ti­a­tion rit­u­als, fan­tas­tic (in both sens­es of the word) ani­mals, super­nat­ur­al appear­ances of char­ac­ters and some of the sil­li­est car­ry­ings on to be found on the oper­at­ic stage.  This aston­ish­ing array of styles also extends to Mozart’s music itself.  “From the Hayd­nesque folk­tunes of the music for the ‘sim­ple’ beings, Papageno and Papa­ge­na, to the mys­ti­cal and rit­u­al­is­tic music for Saras­tro and his court, and from the mad col­oratu­ra of the Queen of the Night to the inclu­sion of an antique-sound­ing north Ger­man Luther­an chorale tune, sung by two men in armor,” as H. C. Rob­bins Lan­don so accu­rate­ly put it. How could such a hodge-podge of seem­ing­ly dis­parate ele­ments pos­si­bly come togeth­er into any kind of coher­ent — much less, pro­found — whole?

Yet it does. And for some of us, The Mag­ic Flute is not a messy coda to Mozart’s out­put. It is, rather, the most utter­ly per­fect sum­ming up of every­thing Mozart had poured into all of his oth­er operas, a glo­ri­ous final tes­ta­ment to life itself, with its pain and absur­di­ty, its tri­als but, ulti­mate­ly, its deep sat­is­fac­tion and joy in sim­ply being alive. And in this, the opera bears a rather aston­ish­ing resem­blance to anoth­er often puz­zling and mis­un­der­stood last work, also writ­ten by one of West­ern Civilization’s great sages, William Shakespeare’s The Tem­pest.

There are the obvi­ous par­al­lels between the char­ac­ters: the male author­i­ty fig­ures Saras­tro (Flute) and Pros­pero (Tem­pest) and their antithe­sis, the Queen of the Night and the evil witch Syco­rax; the slaves Mono­statos and Cal­iban, who rep­re­sent the baser instincts and who wish to rav­age  Pamina/ Miran­da. There is a strong par­al­lel between the young noble cou­ples who instant­ly fall in love with each oth­er, Tamino/Pamina  and Ferdinand/Miranda. Even the tri­als Tamino and Fer­di­nand must under­go before win­ning their lady loves are sim­i­lar in their “Every­man” qual­i­ty. There is no Gor­gon to slay or field to be cleared, sown and reaped in a day, instead Fer­nan­do only has to stack wood, and Tamino must keep his mouth shut, then walk through tri­als of water and fire. The Tem­pest’s deus ex machi­na, the spir­it Ariel has a direct coun­ter­part in The Mag­ic Flute’s dues ex machi­na, the three genii.

The famous poster for Marc Cha­gal­l’s tru­ly mag­i­cal pro­duc­tion at the Met.

But more impor­tant is the fact Mozart’s and Shakespeare’s last works are relat­ed by genre. “The are both adven­tur­ous, roman­tic fairy-tales with naïve mag­ic and child­ish stage tricks, car­ry­ing — in peer­less poet­ry — wis­dom and ethics and bear­ing exquis­ite under­stand­ing of human­i­ty,” Janos Lieb­n­er explains. He also points out both works con­tain “an infi­nite­ly rich vari­ety of human, sub-human and super­hu­man types, span­ning a wide range of char­ac­ters, from the mon­ster through dif­fer­ent grade of human evo­lu­tion to the pure spir­it, free from all earth­ly ties.”

Once we under­stand The Mag­ic Flute is not an opera like The Mar­riage of Figaro with three-dimen­sion­al human beings por­tray­ing day-to-day life in real time, but an alle­go­ry, sym­bol­i­cal­ly reen­act­ing the jour­ney of the soul into full con­scious­ness, every­thing falls into place.

The first scene lets us know imme­di­ate­ly The Mag­ic Flute is a fable. Tamino races on stage, flee­ing a giant ser­pent. He faints (so much for the almighty, fear­less hero) and the ser­pent is prompt­ly dis­patched by the Three Ladies.

The snake is a high­ly ambigu­ous char­ac­ter in mythol­o­gy. “The snake sig­ni­fies evil and dark­ness on the one hand and wis­dom on the oth­er,” Carl Jung wrote. It can kill with a sin­gle bite, so it is feared. But because it sheds its skin it is also a sym­bol of rebirth and the con­stant cycle of life itself.  Entwined around a pole it has become the sym­bol of the med­ical pro­fes­sion and heal­ing, and in some Far East­ern tra­di­tions, the kun­dali­ni snake, coiled at the base of the spine, sym­bol­izes vital ener­gy that can be released through med­i­ta­tion. But unleash­ing such ener­gy can be dan­ger­ous since it means sur­ren­der­ing to, or hav­ing a rela­tion­ship with, a part of life larg­er than our tiny indi­vid­ual egos.  No won­der Tamino is run­ning — it can be enor­mous­ly fright­en­ing to encounter such a pow­er­ful, poten­tial­ly devour­ing, force with­out any prepa­ra­tion or warn­ing.

But Tamino’s encounter with his ser­pent is what leads him into a new land, and push­es him onto his jour­ney of enlight­en­ment. The alleged dis­crep­an­cies and con­tra­dic­tions in the plot of The Mag­ic Flute dis­ap­pear when we real­ize opera is being told from Tamino’s point of view.  At the begin­ning of the opera he is like every human infant, born into a strange and unknown place. At first we learn about the world from the peo­ple imme­di­ate­ly around us. We lit­er­al­ly mir­ror our par­ents’ view of the world. Our fam­i­ly teach­es us what is right and wrong, just as the Three Ladies and the Queen of the Night teach Tamino who is good and who is bad in his new world. But then Tamino sets off on his own, and just as human beings often do, when he begins to encounter the world at large, he real­izes not every­thing he has been told is true. Saras­tro is not, in fact, evil, and as Tamino gains wis­dom, he is able to make up his own mind about right and wrong.

Schikaned­er and Mozart went to great lengths to remind us (some­times sub­tly, some­times no so sub­tly) that The Mag­ic Flute is a sym­bol­ic tale.  To men­tion only one of the clues, there is in the con­stant rep­e­ti­tion of the num­ber three, a mys­ti­cal num­ber all by itself (think of the Chris­t­ian tri­une God­head). In The Mag­ic Flute we encounter Three Ladies, then the Three Genii (or boys) who instruct Tamino in three things — “Be stead­fast, patient, and dis­creet!” (“Sei stand­haft, duld­sam und ver­schwiegen!”). There are three tem­ples (for wis­dom, rea­son and nature) and in the score Saras­tro makes his entrance rid­ing in a char­i­ot drawn by six (3 X 2) lions.

Play­bill for the first per­for­mance

Mozart reflects the impor­tance of the num­ber of three in many ways: the opera is in the key of E‑flat, which has three flats. The over­ture begins with three major chords and half way through the over­ture, the three chords are sound­ed nine (3X3) times.  At the begin­ning of the sec­ond act, fol­low­ing the march of the priests, Mozart against writes the three chords to be sound­ed nine times, after which Saras­tro sings the only aria in the opera writ­ten in three-quar­ter time, “O Isis und Osiris.” (It can­not be an acci­dent the only aria in three-quar­ter time falls in the mid­dle — the heart — of the opera.)

Entire books have been writ­ten explor­ing all the sym­bol­ism in The Mag­ic Flute and, as in any work of art, the more we under­stand the sym­bol­ism, the deep­er our under­stand­ing of the opera will be.

But the rea­son The Mag­ic Flute, and The Tem­pest, so loved, is not because it engages our brains with delight­ful sym­bol­ic puz­zles, but because it warms our hearts and nur­tures our souls on the very deep­est lev­el.  As Janos Lieb­n­er so pro­found­ly point­ed out, “ ‘Every phe­nom­e­non of exis­tence is lyri­cal in its ide­al essence, trag­ic in its fate, and com­ic in its forms of appear­ance,’ says San­tayana. On Shakespeare’s and Mozart’s stages, all three cat­e­gories exist simul­ta­ne­ous­ly and melt into per­fect uni­ty. Tamino’s devel­op­ment is the devel­op­ment of the audi­ence, too, accom­pa­ny­ing their hero through his suf­fer­ing and tri­als, in order to reach, beyond the night’s cold dark­ness, the exhil­a­rat­ing warmth of the sun.”

This arti­cle orig­i­nal appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill dur­ing the 2004-05 sea­son.

The image at the top of the page is Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s design for the entrance of the Queen of the Night (1815).




Gaetano Donizetti  — LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR



On August 24, 1669, a young Scot­tish lass named Janet Dal­rym­ple mar­ried David Dun­bar of Bal­doon. Her father was the promi­nent James Dal­rym­ple, the first Vis­count Stair. Her moth­er was described by some as “a shrew.” Janet was mar­ry­ing at her family’s insis­tence, much against her will, since she had been secret­ly engaged to anoth­er man of her own choos­ing, Lord Ruther­ford, but had been forced to renounce him.

On the wed­ding night the bride­groom was dis­cov­ered — severe­ly wound­ed — in the bridal cham­ber, as his new wife raved near­by, insane. The bride died a few weeks lat­er on Sep­tem­ber 12.  The groom recov­ered from his injuries but nev­er after­ward spoke of what had hap­pened that fate­ful day.

Carscreugh Cas­tle, Janet Dal­rym­ple’s home

Such events, quite nat­u­ral­ly, became the fod­der of numer­ous sto­ries through­out Scot­land and Eng­land, and it was Sir Wal­ter Scott (1771 – 1832) who turned them into a huge­ly suc­cess­ful nov­el, The Bride of Lam­mer­moor, in 1819.  Scott claimed to have the sto­ry from two dif­fer­ent but com­pli­men­ta­ry sources, one of which was his great-aunt Mar­garet Swin­ton. As a young girl, she had known Janet Dalrymple’s broth­er, who had told her that on the way to the wed­ding cer­e­mo­ny his sister’s hand felt “moist, and cold as a stat­ue.”

Gae­tano Donizetti (1797 – 1848) took Scott’s nov­el and turned it into an opera that, at the time of its pre­mier, seemed the very pin­na­cle of Roman­tic sen­si­bil­i­ty.  Since Lucia di Lam­mer­moor pre­miered in Naples in 1835 it has nev­er been out of reper­toire, no mat­ter what new fads and fash­ions have swept the oper­at­ic world. For much of the Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry is sim­ply was opera, and came to typ­i­fy much more than a musi­cal form (as Flaubert showed in Madame Bovary.)

There are sev­er­al good rea­sons why Lucia has remained such a vibrant pres­ence on the stage, while many of its oper­at­ic sib­lings of the bel can­to era have either dis­ap­peared for good, or dropped out of view for long peri­ods of time, before being redis­cov­ered in the 1950s and ’60s.

Donizetti had achieved inter­na­tion­al atten­tion in 1830 with the pre­mier of Anna Bole­na. He was only 33 years old, but Anna Bole­na was already his thir­ti­eth opera. (Lucia was his forty-sixth.) Donizetti had always been a gift­ed melodist, but from Bole­na on he gained a new facil­i­ty for con­vey­ing the emo­tion of the char­ac­ters through his tunes. The aston­ish pow­er of Donizetti’s melodies could not be denied — even by oth­er com­posers who often sneered at Ital­ian opera.

Richard Wagner’s wife, Cosi­ma, record­ed in her diary for Novem­ber 30, 1881, “When sup­per was fin­ished, R[ichard] got up and played Ital­ian melodies (Lucia), say­ing this music, in free­ing  itself from Rossini’s ornate style, enabled the heart to speak, and it was all suf­fer­ing and lament.”

In Lucia Donizetti added the orches­tra to that “suf­fer­ing and lament” of his melod­ic gift, to give an opera its own tin­ta—hue or tone — that con­veys the unique qual­i­ty of the sto­ry though the music’s col­or. Rossi­ni had pio­neered in Ital­ian opera using instru­ments in the orches­tra for their col­or (to such an extent his detrac­tors derid­ed him as “un tedesco,” a Ger­man). Donizetti took this a step fur­ther with Lucia and used it, not for its own sake, or to tit­il­late the ears of his audi­ence, but as anoth­er way to con­vey the dra­ma of a scene and the shift­ing emo­tions of his char­ac­ters.

Today we lis­ten to Lucia with ears that are used to the sounds of Wagner’s orches­tra, the daz­zling instru­men­ta­tion of scores by Richard Strauss, Rav­el and Debussy. When we go to the movies or watch tele­vi­sion, we’re accus­tomed to the sound­track clu­ing us in to shifts in the sto­ry. But Donizetti’s audi­ence knew none of these sounds. For them, Lucia di Lam­mer­moor was non-stop sen­so­ry over­load.

From the first omi­nous taps of the tym­pa­ni in the pre­lude, fol­lowed by the brood­ing quar­tet of horns, we intu­itive­ly under­stand this is a trag­ic tale. And Donizetti’s lis­ten­ers would prob­a­bly have been amazed at his fol­low­ing the horns’ open­ing phras­es with bas­soons, then clar­inets, fol­lowed by oboes, and not using any of the orchestra’s strings until the entire orches­tra breaks into a giant for­tis­si­mo in the mid­dle of the pre­lude.

Giuseppe di Ste­fano’s Edgar­do was extra­or­di­nary

Repeat­ed­ly through­out the opera, Donizetti com­bines the unique tim­bre of the orches­tral instru­ments with the singer’s vocal line in such a way that his audi­ence can­not help feel­ing the emo­tions of the char­ac­ter on stage. For instance, after Edgar­do stabs him­self in the final scene, rather than fol­low­ing oper­at­ic con­ven­tion, and hav­ing the tenor sing the final verse of his aria before final­ly expir­ing, Donizetti brought a new lev­el of real­i­ty to the dra­ma. It’s not the tenor who begins the reprise of his aria, but the cel­los in the orches­tra. Over their weep­ing melody, the dying tenor has only gasp­ing, iso­lat­ed phras­es — which must have sent chills down the backs of his audi­ence.  Only after 17 mea­sures does the tenor again begin to sing his aria’s melody.

Rou­tine per­for­mances of operas by Donizetti and his fel­low bel can­to com­posers Rossi­ni and Belli­ni, can give the (very false) impres­sion there is noth­ing to them but a few pleas­ant tunes and an occa­sion­al oppor­tu­ni­ty for emp­ty vocal dis­play. In fact, these operas offer singers a unique chance to move audi­ences deeply through their abil­i­ty to con­vey myr­i­ad emo­tion­al col­ors dur­ing any giv­en scene.

Above all, bel can­to is expres­sion,” declared Maria Callas, her­self a great Lucia. “A beau­ti­ful sound is not enough. It is a method of singing, a sort of straight­jack­et you must put on. You learn how to approach a note, how to attack it, how to form a lega­to, how to cre­ate a mood. How to breathe so that there is a feel­ing of only a begin­ning and end­ing. It must seem as if you have tak­en only one big breath, though in actu­al­i­ty there will be many phras­es with many lit­tle breaths.”

Callas, Tul­lio Ser­afin and Fer­ruc­cio Tagli­avi­ni record­ing “Lucia”

It was the great con­duc­tor Tulio Ser­afin who taught her “There must be expres­sion to every­thing you do, a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. I learned that every embell­ish­ment must be put to the ser­vice of music, and that if you real­ly care for the com­pos­er, and not just for your own per­son­al suc­cess, you will always find the mean­ing of a trill or a scale that will jus­ti­fy a feel­ing of hap­pi­ness, anx­i­ety, sad­ness. Mae­stro Ser­afin taught me, in short, the depth of music.”

In work­ing with a young sopra­no on Lucia’s Act I aria, “Reg­na­va nel silen­zio,” dur­ing her mas­ter class­es at the Juil­liard School, Callas point­ed out, “You must make the pub­lic feel that Lucia is ill from the begin­ning, so this aria is the key to the dra­ma that fol­lows. It shows the unset­tled mind that lat­er leads Lucia to mur­der her hus­band.”

A great singer will not approach a caden­za as just an oppor­tu­ni­ty for mere vocal aggran­dize­ment, rather it’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to strength­en a par­tic­u­lar emo­tion, or point of the dra­ma, in the minds of the audi­ence. “Remem­ber your caden­za should reflect the words that Lucia has just sung — ‘The waters so limpid turned crim­son as blood’ — so there is no room for any­thing cute, or for a dis­play of fire­works,” Callas instruct­ed.

Joan Suther­land’s first Lucia made her world famous.

The part of Lucia, of course, cli­max­es with her famous Mad Scene. Mad scenes were noth­ing new to opera. Peo­ple who behave in unusu­al and extrav­a­gant ways are the stuff of which dra­ma — whether spo­ken or sung — is made. By pre­sent­ing a char­ac­ter that is insane, com­posers and drama­tists are free to present a vast kalei­do­scope of behav­iors with­in a very lim­it­ed amount of time. And it is not only nine­teenth cen­tu­ry com­posers who eager­ly seized the oppor­tu­ni­ty to write mad scenes for their lead­ing char­ac­ters.

In Peter Grimes (1945) Ben­jamin Brit­ten wrote an intense­ly grip­ping mad scene for tenor, accom­pa­nied only by foghorns and the off­stage cho­rus repeat­ing the name “Peter Grimes.”  Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel, writ­ten in the 1920s, has a mad scene for not only the sopra­no, Rena­ta, but her fel­low nuns as well.

The fact that Donizetti’s Mad Scene for Lucia is like­ly to strike us today as “pret­ty,” rather than the more “nat­ur­al” rav­ings of Britten’s Grimes or Prokofiev’s Rena­ta, does not mean it is any less dra­mat­i­cal­ly viable. Lucia is insane, but that does not inval­i­date her emo­tions. Lucia gen­uine­ly feels each moment of ter­ror, each moment of hope, of ecsta­sy, of despair — no mat­ter how brief or how unmo­ti­vat­ed it might be to the watch­ing wed­ding guests.

Luisa Tetrazz­ini’s Lucia drove audi­ences into a fren­zy.

To help the sopra­no con­vey this aston­ish­ing, almost non-stop cas­cade of shift­ing emo­tions, Donizetti pulled out all the stops musi­cal­ly. He care­ful­ly con­struct­ing the scene so that at the begin­ning Lucia moves in and out of real­i­ty, but by the end, she has become total­ly dement­ed. Though the com­pos­er write out a num­ber of vocal embell­ish­ments, he left some of the caden­zas to the indi­vid­ual sopra­no, only indi­cat­ing in the score the har­mon­ic scheme he want­ed a singer to use. (Our con­tem­po­rary idea that an artist may only sing the notes print­ed in the score and those “come scrit­to” — as writ­ten — would have struck Donizetti and his singers as…well, insane.)

Accord­ing to some crit­ics in the 1830s, the first Lucia, Fan­ny Per­siani, often changed her embell­ish­ments from per­for­mance to per­for­mance, depend­ing on her mood and the state of her voice on any giv­en evening.  Since at least the days of Han­del, singers had been trained to com­pose their own embell­ish­ments to suit any dra­mat­ic sit­u­a­tion, and they were also trained to embell­ish spon­ta­neous­ly dur­ing per­for­mances — much as a great jazz musi­cian today will elab­o­rate on a song accord­ing to his mood at the time.  Since so much of Persiani’s per­for­mance was spon­ta­neous, it is unlike­ly she per­formed the lengthy Mad Scene caden­zas with flute — since the flute’s notes have to be set in advance — that we have come to expect today.

(In fact, Donizetti first want­ed to use the glass har­mon­i­ca, Ben­jamin Franklin’s inven­tion, as the obbli­ga­to instru­ment in the Mad Scene, but no suit­able play­er could be found, so he turned to the flute.  Bev­er­ly Sills’s record­ing of Lucia on West­min­ster, con­duct­ed by Thomas Schip­pers, uses glass har­mon­i­ca, and shows Donizetti’s orig­i­nal instincts were cor­rect. The spooky, oth­er­world­ly sound of the instru­ment is a per­fect touch to that part of the opera.)

But regard­less of which embell­ish­ments and caden­zas a sopra­no ulti­mate­ly uses in the Mad Scene, the point is not the vocal acro­bat­ics or the high-wire-cir­cus-act aspect of the daz­zling vocal dis­play — as enjoy­able as those things can be. The point is to use all these dif­fer­ent tools to con­vey the vast panoply of Lucia’s tragedy.

Con­vey­ing all that you have found in a score becomes a sort of drug,” Callas observed. “If you man­age to trans­mit this to the pub­lic, you will have a won­der­ful drunk­en feel­ing which becomes con­ta­gious all around.  But it is also a priv­i­lege. I con­sid­er myself priv­i­leged because I have been able to bring truth from the soul and the mind, give it to the pub­lic, and have it accept­ed. It is one of the great­est pow­ers one can put in the ser­vice of one of the great­est arts — music.” Donizetti would cer­tain­ly have agreed.


Dri­ving Audi­ences Mad — In Odd Ways”

The Mad Scene from Lucia, like many oper­at­ic mad scenes, is such a musi­cal and dra­mat­ic tour de force that it is under­stand­able singers would want to daz­zle audi­ences with it as often as they could.

Mod­ern audi­ences would not be par­tic­u­lar­ly sur­prised to hear Lucia’s Mad Scene in an orches­tral con­cert fea­tur­ing a famous col­oratu­ra sopra­no. But oper­at­ic his­to­ry is sprin­kled with per­for­mances of the Mad Scene in ways that seem decid­ed­ly odd to us today.

The first sea­son the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera gave Puccini’s La Bohème (1900 – 01), the Mimi was sung by Nel­lie Mel­ba, who was not only a famous sopra­no, but a famous pri­ma don­na, as well.  Mel­ba adored the role of Mimi (on more than one occa­sion she said it was her favorite part), but she adored daz­zling her audi­ence with her voice even more. So on sev­er­al occa­sions, after the cur­tain had fall­en on Puccini’s opera, Mel­ba pro­ceed­ed to sing the Mad Scene from Lucia (accom­pa­nied by the Met’s orches­tra) for her ador­ing fans.

Bohème was not the only opera Mel­ba deemed insuf­fi­cient to stand on its own. She also sang the Mad Scene from Lucia after some per­for­mances of Verdi’s Rigo­let­to—one of which fea­tured the great singing actor Vic­tor Mau­rel in the title role. (One can only won­der how Mau­rel, who cre­at­ed the role of Iago in Otel­lo and was Verdi’s first Fal­staff, felt about Melba’s stunt.)

Nel­lie Mel­ba in 1891

Even Wagner’s operas were not immune to such gild­ing. In April 1894, while the Met was on tour in Chica­go, Mel­ba sang Elis­a­beth in Tannhäuser. The tenor, Francesco Vig­nas, was ill, so to spare him (and per­haps the audi­ence) from the ardors of Tannhäuser’s “Rome Nar­ra­tive,” Act III end­ed after Wolfram’s aria “O du mein hold­er Abend­stern.” As the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera’s own data­base puts it: “So the Mad Scene from Lucia was added [with Mel­ba] to fill out the evening.”

But times were very dif­fer­ent a cen­tu­ry ago. For sev­er­al sea­sons the Met occa­sion­al­ly cou­pled the new one-act opera Cav­al­le­ria Rus­ti­cana with per­for­mances of Donizetti’s Lucia (some of which end­ed after the Mad Scene). Sopra­no Mar­cel­la Sem­brich treat­ed audi­ences to the Mad Scene from Thomas’s Ham­let after Rigo­let­to, and tossed in “Ah, non giunge” from Bellini’s La Son­nam­bu­la at the con­clu­sion of Rossini’s Bar­ber of Seville.

And then there was the time the Met was giv­ing Gounod’s Roméo et Juli­ette in Boston. Dur­ing the cur­tain calls an upright piano was pushed onto the stage, and the evening’s Romeo, the great Jean De Reszke, sat down and accom­pa­nied his Juli­et — Mel­ba, of course — in “Home, Sweet Home.”


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

FALSTAFF — The Ultimate Bel Canto Opera?



What peo­ple do with food is an act that reveals how they con­strue the world,” writes Mar­cel­la Haz­an in The Clas­sic Ital­ian Cook­book. Her point is a good one, and by sub­sti­tut­ing the word “voice” for “ingre­di­ents” in Hazan’s dis­cus­sion of Ital­ian cui­sine, one gets a superb descrip­tion of Ital­ian bel can­to opera – and just what makes Verdi’s Fal­staff the supreme mas­ter­piece it is.

The essen­tial qual­i­ty of Ital­ian food can be defined as fideli­ty to its ingre­di­ents, to their taste, col­or, shape, and fresh­ness,” she explains. “The meth­ods of Ital­ian cook­ing are not intend­ed to improve an ingredient’s char­ac­ter, but rather to allow it as much free and nat­ur­al devel­op­ment as the taste­ful bal­ance of a dish will per­mit.”

Just as Ital­ian cook­ing depends on raw ingre­di­ents “of the fresh­est and choic­est qual­i­ty,” bel can­to opera depends on great voic­es. In bel can­to opera the empha­sis is on voice, voice, voice. It is through the voice that the dra­ma and emo­tion are pri­mar­i­ly con­veyed. No mat­ter how skill­ful­ly Rossi­ni, Belli­ni, Donizetti and Ver­di wrote for the orches­tra (and they were all mas­ters at it), they con­ceived of it as a way to enhance the voice. The orches­tra was the embell­ish­ing sauce, not the main dish itself.

Fal­staff is often viewed as an opera that has almost noth­ing to do with Verdi’s ear­li­er works. Some crit­ics have described it as being more like a Wag­ner­ian opera, and com­plained it lacks arias and set pieces. In fact, Fal­staff is the cul­mi­na­tion of bel can­to opera. In writ­ing it, Ver­di took the ele­ments of Ital­ian opera and boiled them down to their very essence, like a mas­ter chef reduc­ing a sauce.

One of the sur­pris­ing things about Fal­staff is just how often the singers are left com­plete­ly on their own. Time after time Ver­di silences the orches­tra entire­ly and leaves the voice total­ly exposed — for a few words or a phrase — but always in a way that points up the dra­ma, as well as empha­siz­ing the voice itself.

Tito Gob­bi, a mar­velous Fal­staff

For instance, in Falstaff’s famous “Hon­or mono­logue” when he asks, “Can hon­or fill up your bel­ly? Can hon­or set a bro­ken leg? Or a foot? Or a fin­ger? Or a hair?” each ques­tion is asked a capel­la. But Ver­di varies the sound by bring­ing in the orches­tra each time Fal­staff answers the ques­tion with a resound­ing “No.” And it is in the way Verdi’s orches­tra accom­pa­nies each “No” that reveals just what a mas­ter chef Ver­di has become in con­coct­ing the tim­bre of his opera.

A less expe­ri­enced com­pos­er might well be tempt­ed to use the entire orches­tra to ham­mer home the humor of each “No,” giv­ing it a great orches­tral splat — the musi­cal equiv­a­lent of a prat­fall. At least, one might expect, sure­ly Ver­di would ask for a loud thump on the ket­tle­drums and a juicy blat on the tuba. But no. Instead Ver­di judi­cious­ly sea­sons this part of his score with a sin­gle clar­inet, play­ing very low in its reg­is­ter,  a sin­gle bas­soon — both play­ing stac­ca­to — and two string bass­es (Ver­di asks they pluck, rather than bow the strings). Only four instru­ments from the entire orches­tra, and all four direct­ed to play soft­ly. The result is a deli­cious com­bi­na­tion of instru­men­tal tim­bres, redo­lent of irony and acer­bic humor, and utter­ly right for that moment of the opera.

In fact, it is just that qual­i­ty of utter right­ness for every sin­gle moment of the opera, the unique­ness and exact­ness of Verdi’s response to the dra­ma and emo­tion of the libret­to, that makes Fal­staff such a con­stant joy for the lis­ten­er. But since every moment of the score has its own col­or, its own sea­son­ing, it pass­es so quick­ly that it is often gone before lis­ten­ers have con­scious­ly rec­og­nized it.

In the first scene of the opera, the scam­per­ing strings that accom­pa­ny Falstaff’s call­ing for the Page and instruct­ing him to take the love let­ters to Alice and Meg lasts for maybe 10 sec­onds. When Fal­staff answers his ques­tion, “What is hon­or?” by reply­ing “A word,” Ver­di empha­sizes how lit­tle Fal­staff val­ues a word by the del­i­cate orches­tral response: one flute and one clar­inet play­ing four quick, ascend­ing notes, fol­lowed by a four notes from a pic­co­lo and an oboe going even high­er. It is almost over before we even hear it — like the per­fect sea­son­ing in a light sauce that lasts just a sec­ond on the tongue and van­ish­es before we can quite make out exact­ly what it is.

Ver­di also uses his orches­tra to move the audi­ence from one strong emo­tion­al state to quite a dif­fer­ent emo­tion, but he does it so deft­ly it only reg­is­ters in ret­ro­spect.

At the end of the first scene of Act II, Ford gives into his jeal­ous­ly, and works him­self into a tirade, the end of which is accom­pa­nied by the entire orches­tra in full war cry, pas­sion­ate­ly echo­ing the character’s over­whelm­ing rage — for four mea­sures. Two mea­sures lat­er the orches­tra ele­gant­ly accom­pa­nies the re-entry of a fop­pish Fal­staff, dressed for woo­ing. How does Ver­di move an audi­ence from anger to gig­gles in only two mea­sures? The astute com­pos­er knew that a gen­uine bel­ly laugh always over­throws anger, so out of the thun­der­ing orches­tra, Ver­di wrote descend­ing triplets for the horns silenc­ing most of the rest of the orches­tra so audi­ence would be sure to hear the horns’ deep, hearty musi­cal laugh.

This com­bin­ing of astute psy­cho­log­i­cal insights with deft musi­cal touch­es is part of Verdi’s genius in Fal­staff, and the way he does that, while also pay­ing trib­ute to his bel can­to roots, is almost over­whelm­ing.

One of the char­ac­ter­is­tic of bel can­to opera is the large ensem­ble with which acts often close. Prin­ci­pals and cho­rus all react to what has just hap­pened dra­mat­i­cal­ly on stage, and an extend­ed con­cert num­ber devel­ops. Typ­i­cal­ly one or two of the opera’s main char­ac­ters sing a long, arch­ing lyric line over the rest of the ensemble’s more rhyth­mic, pul­sat­ing music, which pro­vides a var­ied and excit­ing musi­cal tex­ture — and a quite effec­tive, and enjoy­able, close to an act.

Ver­di uti­lized this bel can­to device at the end of Act I, but he used what had been pri­mar­i­ly a musi­cal moment, not only to fur­ther the dra­ma, but also to con­vey his pro­found psy­cho­log­i­cal insight into the char­ac­ter of Fen­ton. The entire sec­ond scene of Act I is an extend­ed ensem­ble of Mozart­ian per­fec­tion. We meet the Mer­ry Wives of Wind­sor and watch them hatch their plot against Fal­staff (Ver­di uti­lizes the bel can­to tra­di­tion of writ­ing vocal embell­ish­ments in a character’s music to add empha­sis by writ­ing trills for all of the women to point up the humor of their words); Bar­dolf and Pis­tol tell Ford what Fal­staff is up to and a coun­ter­plot is hatched; and in the midst of all this bustling, non­stop activ­i­ty the young lovers Fen­ton and Nanet­ta woo.

Juan Diego Flo­rez, an enchant­i­ng Fen­ton

Verdi’s mas­ter­stroke occurs at the cli­max of the nine-part (!) ensem­ble. Eight of the voic­es are busy plot­ting in scur­ry­ing eighth notes and six­teenth notes, but Fen­ton is singing music total­ly dif­fer­ent from every­one else on stage. Ver­di knew that when a young man falls in love for the first time, it com­plete­ly knocks him into an entire­ly new world.  It is some­thing out­side the exis­tence he has known, he is total­ly unpre­pared for it and he often becomes obliv­i­ous to what’s going on around him. “She whose sweet love my heart is mur­mur­ing, bright­est love! We will be like a con­stel­la­tion shim­mer­ing, two hearts unit­ed as one,” Fen­ton rhap­sodizes in long arch­ing phras­es, soar­ing over the hub­bub of the rest of the char­ac­ters. In one per­fect stroke Ver­di pays trib­ute to an ele­ment of bel can­to opera, defines Fenton’s char­ac­ter and reminds us how sweet, and how fleet­ing, young love is.

The ado­les­cent love bun­dle,” is how Charles Osborne summed up Nanette and Fen­ton. Ver­di and Boito bring back the young lovers in each of the three acts, con­trast­ing their hon­est, fresh, true love with Falstaff’s heavy-hand­ed, over-the-top com­ic woo­ing. But even the wel­comed moments of lyric repose the young lovers offer, in the midst of the opera’s gen­er­al hilar­i­ty, are just “a taste.” They nev­er have a prop­er love duet and Fen­ton nev­er gets a com­plete aria.

I like that love of theirs, it serves to make the whole com­e­dy more fresh and more sol­id,” Boito wrote to Ver­di. “So it is point­less to have them sing a gen­uine duet togeth­er by them­selves. Their part, even with­out the duet, will be very effec­tive, indeed, it will be even more effec­tive with­out. I don’t quite know how to explain myself: I would like to sprin­kle the whole com­e­dy with that light­heart­ed love, like pow­dered sug­ar on a cake, with­out col­lect­ing it in one point.”

Pas­tas are nev­er swamped by sauce,” Mar­cel­la Haz­an warns the ama­teur cook. “Por­tions are nev­er so swollen in size as to tax our capac­i­ty for enjoy­ment.”

Ver­di knew that. And in Fal­staff he pre­sent­ed us with an oper­at­ic ban­quet that sums up the his­to­ry of Ital­ian opera, by giv­ing us a series of tastes and fla­vors. He has done it so mas­ter­ful­ly that the more we know about opera, the more we are in awe of his feast and the more we enjoy it.  But it is so tasty that even a novice can delight in it. And isn’t that one def­i­n­i­tion of a True Mas­ter­piece?

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2002.







What a hor­rid lit­tle mon­ster!” wrote W. H. Auden of Werther, the epony­mous hero of Goethe’s novel­la, The Sor­rows of Young Werther. “Liv­ing in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, not the eigh­teenth, and know­ing, as most of his con­tem­po­raries did not, Goethe’s lat­er work, Werther can still fas­ci­nate us, but in a very dif­fer­ent way,” Auden explained in his “Fore­word” to the book. “To us it reads not as a trag­ic love sto­ry, but as a mas­ter­ly and dev­as­tat­ing por­trait of a com­plete ego­ist, a spoiled brat, inca­pable of love because he cares for nobody and noth­ing but him­self and hav­ing his way at what­ev­er the cost to oth­ers.”

Though Auden — an opera lover and libret­tist him­self — was not writ­ing about the hero of Massenet’s opera, but about the novel­la on which the opera is based, there is no rea­son to think he would change his harsh words in any sig­nif­i­cant way if he com­ment­ed on the oper­at­ic ver­sion.  Nor would Auden be the first crit­ic who seems to be decid­ed­ly out of char­i­ty with Goethe’s and Massenet’s Roman­tic hero.

George Bernard Shaw was far from being London’s biggest fan of French opera, but after see­ing Werther at Covent Gar­den in 1894 he wrote a per­haps sur­pris­ing­ly favor­able review of the work. Even so, Shaw could not resist adding the thought that Massenet “suc­ceed­ed in keep­ing up the inter­est of a libret­to con­sist­ing of four acts of a lovelorn tenor who has only two active moments, one when he tries to rav­ish a kiss from the fair [Char­lotte], and the oth­er when he shoots him­self behind the scenes.”

Both men miss the point of Werther. One rea­son his sto­ry caused such a furor through­out Europe when Goethe’s book was pub­lished in 1774, and that Massenet’s opera retains a sol­id place in the reper­toire over a cen­tu­ry after its pre­mier, is because we all rec­og­nize a part of our­selves in Werther. It is like­ly to be a part of our­selves that intrigues us, but which we are not real­ly com­fort­able deal­ing with — either because we indulge our inner Werther too much, or we try to freeze him out entire­ly. Either action robs our lives of com­plete­ness, rich­ness and mean­ing.

If Werther was as repel­lant as Auden describes him to be Char­lotte would not have fall­en in love with him instant­ly (as she con­fess­es to him in the last act), nor would her father (the Bailiff) and all the chil­dren find him so charm­ing. In fact, the worse thing any­one in the opera says about Werther is that he is some­what melan­choly and that he is “not much a one for his food.”

As soon as Werther steps on stage Massenet makes sure the audi­ence falls under his spell as com­plete­ly as Char­lotte will a few moments lat­er.  He stands for a moment, look­ing at Charlotte’s home, and sings, “I know not if I’m awake or still dream­ing; every­thing around me seems like Paradise…Everything attracts and charms me.” The won­der he feels, his total one­ness with Nature, his grat­i­tude for the beau­ty all around him, his absorp­tion in that very moment — it is all set to rav­ish­ing­ly beau­ti­ful music. There is an inno­cence to it that can­not help but strike the lis­ten­er as some­how pro­found. At that moment Werther is in touch with some­thing very pre­cious, and the result is instant­ly appeal­ing.

In Werther’s pres­ence we see things we would be like­ly to skip over as we race through our dai­ly rou­tine.  When we head for the sub­way, our minds already deal­ing with what is wait­ing for us at work, we’re like­ly to not notice the way the sun­light fil­ters through tree leaves, cre­at­ing a whole palette of dif­fer­ent hues of the col­or green. We are prob­a­bly blind to the soft smile on the face of the elder­ly woman as she looks at a young cou­ple, gaz­ing rapt­ly into each other’s eyes. Mort­gages, tax­es and pro­vid­ing shoes for the chil­dren often have a way of putting blind­ers on us.  If we are not care­ful, deal­ing with the neces­si­ties of life can eas­i­ly turn into a numb­ing, soul­less rou­tine before we are aware of what has hap­pened. Werther reminds us that life is infi­nite, and our per­son­al uni­verse can be much rich­er and more reward­ing if we allow it to be.

This is sim­i­lar to the mean­ing of The Fool in the Tarot deck. “The Fool rep­re­sents true inno­cence, a kind of per­fect state of joy and free­dom, a feel­ing of being one with the spir­it of life at all times. His inno­cence makes him a per­son with no past, and there­fore an infi­nite future. Every moment is a new start­ing point,” writes Rachel Pol­lack in Sev­en­ty-eight Degrees of Wis­dom. “The Fool teach­es us that life is sim­ply a con­tin­u­ous dance of expe­ri­ence. But most of us can­not main­tain even brief moments of such spon­tane­ity and free­dom. Due to fears, con­di­tion­ing, and sim­ply the very real prob­lems of dai­ly life, we nec­es­sar­i­ly allow our egos to iso­late us from expe­ri­ence. Yet with­in us we can sense, dim­ly, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of free­dom, and there­fore we call this vague feel­ing of loss a ‘fall’ from inno­cence.”

In our soci­ety this inno­cence and depth of feel­ing is often rel­e­gat­ed to artists – or to chil­dren; peo­ple whom we assume are “freer” in some way because they are spared hav­ing to deal with “real­i­ty.” It is accept­able for a four year old at the beach to jump up and down, filled with the ener­gy and excite­ment of the sun, the water, the sheer joy and beau­ty of exist­ing in that moment. But a forty year old doing that?

This is not to sug­gest that adults should aban­don their hard-won matu­ri­ty and behave child­ish­ly. Danc­ing blithe­ly through a uni­verse of end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties might seem the most absurd­ly imprac­ti­cal way to live, to say noth­ing of being reck­less. After all, poten­tial is dandy, but the real reward is in turn­ing that poten­tial into con­crete real­i­ty.  Liv­ing only in the world of poten­tial is as unful­fill­ing as liv­ing a life con­sist­ing of only unfeel­ing, dead­en­ing rou­tine.  Allow­ing our inner Werther to rule us leads to tragedy — as sure­ly as it leads Werther in the opera to his death, which is why Werther is a cau­tion­ary tale. But ignor­ing our inner Werther leads to a life of steril­i­ty and joy­less­ness, a life with­out hope or change. At the begin­ning of Act Three Char­lotte laments, “Since he left, every­thing, despite myself, is weari­some,” and her sis­ter Sophie sings, “All the faces here have become deject­ed since Werther fled away.”

When we live ful­ly we take a posi­tion that holds us con­stant­ly in a state of sus­tain­ing para­dox­es in the play of the oppo­sites,” writes John Weir Per­ry.

The tarot Fool can start us on this arche­typ­al jour­ney toward wis­dom and whole­ness. “Her­man Melville, in Moby Dick, warned his read­ers not to take even a step out­side the ordi­nary path laid out for you by soci­ety. You might not get back again,” notes Pol­lack. “And yet, for those will­ing to take the chance, the leap can bring joy, adven­ture, and final­ly, for those with the courage to keep going when the won­der­land becomes more fear­some than joy­ous, the leap can bring knowl­edge, peace, and lib­er­a­tion.”


This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill dur­ing the 2003-04 sea­son.